‘Self-Sufficiency’ Doesn’t Exist, and Thank God for That.

In early 2019, I was very fixated on the idea of self-sufficiency. I was a recent college grad with some new traumas under my belt struggling to find work and figure out what I needed to do to start building a successful adult life. It was only due to the love and generosity of my family that I was able to make some of the choices I did at that point, working to get my life together. I was struggling a lot internally, feeling like a failure because I wasn’t “self-sufficient.”

In contemporary America, what this idea of self-sufficiency generally translates to is an ability to navigate institutions and economic life in particular with a degree of ease where you use your intentional agency to bring about the results you desire. And while this may require a great deal of energy and time invested, self-sufficiency means you have the know-how to go from point A to point B. Lacking self-sufficiency means not knowing how to go from A to B and struggling forward in a winding path with many detours, some of which are entirely unproductive, and at times simply withdrawing into yourself and disengaging because the journey is simply too overwhelming.

But where exactly is the “self” as the supposed ground to this sufficiency? Surely the agency or willpower are directly connected to the self, but this is a feature in both of the above situations. Perhaps it is in the know-how? While this seems to be a distinguishing feature between having and lacking self-sufficiency, how this is in any way self-created seems immediately suspect.

When we first come into this world, we are anything but self-sufficient. We are entirely other-sufficient, relying on parents for sustenance, safety, and love. As we grow and our capacity for agency develops, it appears as though we become more self-sufficient, but on closer inspection the reliance on the other lingers: the language we speak was taught to us, the food we eat was grown for us, the tools we use were made for us. Even when we try to dig down as deep as possible and, say, grow our own food we run up against the undeniable fact that all the necessary components for farming — seeds, soil, water — none of these can be created by human hands or rational intellects. The best we can do in permaculture is be effective stewards of what is given. Real self-sufficiency appears here as a radical acknowledgement of fundamental dependence.

In Islam there is the term taqwa, often translated as “God-consciousness,” which seems to be pointing to this paradox of fundamental dependence at the bottom of all “self”-created virtue. All things in life are given. We engage these things with our agency, but even this is given, along with the possibilities for action we perceive. We only know how to do the things we do as a result of learning from life experiences and other people. Every direction you look, at ground you will find dependence on the given in one form or another. Seeing this reality clearly, in the obscure cases in addition to the obvious ones, is the essence of taqwa.

Our culture is definitely fixated on self-sufficiency, but this is ultimately an insufficient concept for approaching life with all its burdens, graces, complexities, and beauties. Current culture war debates which foreground the concept of privilege grow out of this dysfunction; by focusing on the idea that life is self-authored, we are left with poor resources for empathizing with those suffering and likewise tend to view our own fortune as self-created.

The truth of the matter is that no one “deserves” the given in any abstract sense, whether the given comes as privilege or tragedy. There is no self-sufficiency, only deeply interdependent engagement with the myriad things of this life. Virtue lies not in an effective use of agency, conforming life to your will, but in taqwa — in deep consciousness of dependence, taking the form of patience in the face of hardship and gratitude in the face of grace.

No amount of personal goodness can justify the beautiful things which arise in life, and no amount of personal sin can justify the tribulations people face. Life ebbs and flows on its own terms. To play the game of self-sufficiency is to lose right from the beginning, even if you happen to be blessed with a life of little suffering. It is a door to subtle narcissism which will inevitably rear its head at the times when patience and empathy are most needed from you.

Rather than self-sufficiency, there are simply reverent and arrogant responses to what is given in life. To cultivate taqwa is to play a deeper game, where reverence to grace makes you deserving and patience in the face of tribulation allows you to rise above, whether you were deserving of the suffering or not.

We are in difficult times currently, and many are suffering as a result of unpredictable, undeserved circumstances. This suffering is likely exacerbated by people feeling frustrated with themselves because they cannot successfully navigate these situations. In attachment to self-sufficiency, we increase our suffering by feeling personally responsible for our conditions. Moving away from this paradigm opens the way to so many important and healthy alternatives: grieving, being vulnerable, asking for help, forming community, and of course returning to gratitude for those graces which persist even in dark times.

I am still not self-sufficient, but thank God. Instead, I get to be grateful — grateful for all the people who have supported me and those that continue to offer guidance, grateful for all the undeserved graces, the luck, the privilege, and of course grateful for the most fundamental given, the grace of existing at all in the first place.

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview