Self-Sufficiency Turned Out to be a Lie

I’m one of the last of the Boomers. I hit my teen years a little after the Summer of Love (1967 for you young whippersnappers) and while Vietnam (the war, not the country) was noisily winding down. John Denver, bless him, crooned about life in the mountains and everybody in the know had the Life Subscription to Mother Earth News. Jeans with handmade anything were pro forma.

Among the mantras of that time was the phrase “self-sufficiency.” Among the now-speak of back-to-the-landers, DIY, off-the-grid and “health food” was this notion of providing for oneself all the necessities of life. Grow a food garden (what was the big deal—my family always had!). Not only sew your clothes, but also weave the cloth, spin the fiber after sheering your sheep. The point—or at least part of the point, was to leave Corporate America out of the loop, to be shed of those accoutrements of a wussy dependency upon The Man.

I can even say that at a certain level self-sufficiency grew to become a competitive sport. “Oh, you bought your shoes? We grew the cow from a pup, slaughtered her ourselves, and tanned the hide on the side of our barn.” Now words like “total self-sufficiency” moved the end zone of virtuous living out another 50, 60, 100 yards. The new path of Enlightment was trod by the self-sufficient.

Even then, it occurred to me, probably while I sewed a recycled fringe for my jeans out of those deadly pop-tops that we had on soda cans then, that to learn every skill, to acquire every tool, to manage every farm animal while growing your veggie garden was, to put it simply, a herculean feat. I mean, I was having enough trouble just fiddling my fingers around macramé (1970’s glossary entry meaning twisting cords into knots to make pretty plant hangers). There was always somebody who found enough hours in the day to do all of that AND make macramé. I was in awe.

It turns out that all that talk about self-sufficiency was a lie. Why?

Somehow it was possible to be self-sufficient because it was held forth as a beacon of youthful energy, the goal of my age, but what I learned most from my attempts at bread making, quilting (shamefully removed from the original frugal art by the  purchase of fabric and patterns instead of using scraps from sewing something useful like clothing), growing food in containers (we lived in an apartment) and making my children’s baby food at home was that each of these skills takes time to learn well. Making bread requires commitment to do it all over again when the centers of your precious loaves are all sodden still.  No normally proportioned human being wanted to wear my hand knit sweaters no matter how much I had om’ed (glossary entry for a repeatable mantra that doesn’t basically mean anything but sounds exotic) while my needles click-clicked. I conservatively estimate that it would require several lifetimes to learn all the needed skills for a subsistence existence.

The part of all this that we Self-Sufficient, rugged, individualistic Americans missed was this: that we are social animals. The Wiki defines self-sufficient this way—

 “Self-sufficiency is the state of not requiring any aid, support, or interaction, for survival….”

 —and while that sounds very much like a noble thing, when it all boils down in the iron kettle over the hickory fire is that somebody, be it Corporate America or some self-sufficiency guru, was able to hype this and sell each of us a food grinder, each of us a loom, each of us pottery making classes. While nobody can argue that farm fresh eggs are better for man AND chicken than battery farmed eggs, it’s clear that my generation was retailed, even as we protested being sold. But that’s not the crux of this.

Human life is intelligently designed to MAKE us dependent on one another. The job of surviving, of simply existing in this 3-D world of effects, is just too big. Even in our most equitable (and now considered primitive!) social models—the hunter/gatherers—cooperation was necessary to survive. They had to think of themselves as a member of the group, as within the larger community. Competition was considered insane or sport until the innovation of agriculture allowed us to be able to store food and thereby threaten the rest of us with starvation.

All That Is/God/the Universe knew we’d be at each other’s throats with ego-ic judgments and an entire litany of other sins and that if we weren’t having to bank our survival on our fellow man we’d have blown this planet to smithereens a long time ago. We’re engineered as community beings. I’m happy that the current planetary shift is teasing out those values and beliefs we hold dear that run counter to the idea of being gathered. Jesus showed us how to think of it; in what is known as “The Lord’s Prayer” we find the personal pronouns to be plural—“our,” “us.” Do you think “US-sufficiency” could catch on?

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