Spirituality and Self Sufficiency
Although I agreed with about 95% of the book, I didn’t agree with everything. I felt he placed too much emphasis on an inherent altruistic nature in people, which my experience has not shown me to be true. I ran across a passage in ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ which really seemed to embody this dichotomy for me:
We bend our egos, all of the time, and that is where we differ. That is the fundamental difference, Hatsue. We bend our heads, we bow and are silent, because we understand that by ourselves, alone, we are nothing at all, dust in a strong wind, while the hakujin believes his aloneness is everything, his separateness is the foundation of his existence. He seeks and grasps, seeks and grasps for his separateness, while we seek union with the Greater Life – you must see that these are distinct paths we are traveling.
This passage really struck a chord for me because I do embrace my ‘aloneness’ or individualism. I hold self-sufficiency as one of the highest aspects to be achieved, and yet, this concept appears to fly in the face of teachings about interdependence, solidarity, and modern concepts of spirituality. I think there are many others who feel unsettled by this conflict as well. I composed this article to explain how I have personally rectified this apparent dichotomy within my own belief system.
Wikipedia defines spirituality as follows:
Although I have long considered myself an atheist, the beauty of the islands awakens in me a quiet joy, akin to a spiritual experience. My own role in this ecosystem makes me feel a part of something much bigger. Any efforts taken at conservation and stewardship of this place feel like work in the service of something greater. Likewise, the local community of sailors and fellow sail-bloggers I’ve met over the internet has the feel of a congregation – a collective of kindred souls who see the same thing I do when looking out over the water, who feel the same way I do about its beauty and importance in our lives.
The term spirituality lacks a definitive definition, although social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration.
There is a new term that I ran across that describes this kind of spirituality well – relational spirituality. There is a great summary article here that describes the evolution of relational spirituality. For heavier reading on the subject, I would point people to Sacred Economics or True Wealth. For those who are uncomfortable with the term spirituality, it could simply be called peer-production, or common interest, or Social Capital. I prefer the term relational spirituality because, for me, it is common interest and peer production, combined with something sacred.
My One Gripe with Sacred Economics – Dependence
Solidarity and interdependence are popular hallmarks of these ‘spiritual’ teachings, but I fear that those subscribers are in danger of losing sight of the importance of self-sufficiency. As I alluded too, the one gripe I have with Sacred Economics is its emphasis on the altruistic nature of people and its conclusion that we ‘need to need’ one another more.
I’m also a fan of Ayn Rand’s writing, which goes into great length to depict the horrors of altruism run-amok in both real-life and in her fiction, as well as altruism’s general inefficiency when these concepts are embraced by a government. Even Thoreau, one of the earliest advocates of voluntary simplicity, cautioned against do-gooders:
There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life… I would rather suffer evil the natural way.
I like to think of that quote as Thoreau’s version of the modern proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is these types of altruism, empowered by the monopoly of dependence, that I seek to avoid and caution others against.
Eisenstein advocates a need for dependence in his book. While many of his arguments, as well as arguments in books like Plenitude, state the need to acknowledge our interdependence on one another, a part of me cringes at the concept of complete dependence on other people. In my own life, as well as countless depictions in history and literature, I have seen how a relationship of dependence can lead to exploitation at both the personal and societal scales.
There was one passage early on in his book that I disagreed with in particular. In chapter four, ‘The Trouble with Property’, he argues how the concept of private property (as a symptom of separation from our ecosystem) have led to problems in society. He states:
Charles Avila describes the logic this way: “If I am my own, and my labor power belongs to me, then what I make is mine.” Here then is an ideological prerequisite for any concept of property, that “I am my own”, which is by no means a universal precept in human societies. In other societies, the clan, the tribe, the village, or even the community of all life may have taken priority over the individual conception of the self, in which case your labor power does not belong to you, but to something greater.
By ‘something greater’, Charles alludes to the desire many feel to be part of some greater purpose, to work for a greater good.
While I admit he has a point in regards to people wanting to work for a greater good and I do not dispute the historical accuracy of his comment, the individualist in me recoils from using a collectivist argument to abolish the concept of personal property.
Because this argument is used to logically build up a definition for other concepts later in the book, I think it’s important to analyze it at a deeper level. Later chapters use this argument to emphasize the ‘need to need’ one another and takes this concept past mere interdependence to a level of collective identity and ‘interbeingness’.The problem I see with this argument is that we are, obviously and inherently, separate. To quote Ayn Rand, “We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another.”
While I agree with his greater observation that we all have a desire for meaning in our life (e.g. to be part of something greater than ourselves) and that we are interdependent on members of our immediate society, I think he trivializes our separateness. We evolved to take care of ourselves, to live on our own if need be – to hunt our own food, to heal our own wounds, to build our own shelters. Humans are very capable of living in isolation. Because they choose not to is important, but don’t ignore the fact that they are able. Self-sufficiency is an evolutionary imperative that can not be ignored.
In that chapter, Charles argues that our cultural concept of a ‘separate self’ leads us to isolation from nature and thus an urge to dominate nature and turn it into ‘property’. Property then has its own set of problems that he expands upon later in the chapter.
I would argue that he is over-emphasizing our sense of isolation. I agree with him that in society today, we have taken our self-inflicted isolation from nature far too far. However, I can’t help but point out the obvious fact that we are separate. If you die, I do not die. If a forest burns down, I do not burn. Yes, I would feel a great sense of loss, but the point is that separate, discrete lives are a reality – how we evolved. Yes, we are interdependent. Yes, relationships are a huge aspect of our lives. Yes, we should acknowledge our dependence on nature and the ecosystem and feel a sense of loss when they are damaged. But do not forget that we are discrete beings. For that reason, self-sufficiency is a virtue.
Furthermore, I would point out that cultivating self-sufficiency within ourselves leads to a greater appreciation for nature. Total self-sufficiency is really an impossible ideal, for when I speak of it, I mean self-sufficiency from other people. It’s implicit that a self-sufficient person is still reliant on nature, there is no other option. But it leaves one free to deal with people… or not. It does not remove the imperative of interdependence, it simply removes the exploitive nature of dependence.
In chapter eight, Eisenstein goes into greater detail on his concept of interbeingness. He touches briefly on the works of Ayn Rand and how it conflicts with his concepts. He concludes that “full membership in the community of being” leads one to “express our gifts; it is among our deepest desires, and we cannot be fully alive otherwise.”
I agree with him about our innate desire to express our gifts for the betterment of the world around us, but I would argue that this desire stems from a benevolence born from self sufficiency. Only after we have tended to our own basic needs can we (or should we) turn our energy to the enrichment of others. To me, this is what is meant by a ‘mentality of abundance’ – to produce more than you need and to bestow that excess as a generous act, a gift. For me, the very definition of benevolence has self-sufficiency at its core.Here is what frightens me about the ‘need to need’ one another: To say “I depend on you”, is to say “I need you”, which is to say, “If I can’t get what I need from you, I’m screwed.” That is dependence, and it’s a desperate place to be. To need people in general, a choice of one of several people, is interdependence. To need one single person is a monopoly. That is dependence, and leads to an unpleasant, exploitive relationship for both parties.
Despite my disagreements with his logic, I want to point out that I do not disagree with Charles economic conclusions. This section of chapter four that I pointed out concludes that we need a monetary system that “rewards flow and not accumulation, creating and not owning, giving and not having.” In this, I whole-heartedly agree with him.
Because I feel Charles made this slight error in the foundation of Sacred Economics, I think the truth in the ultimate message of the book is skewed. It does not leave enough room for the importance of concepts such as self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. They are implicit in much of his arguments, such as the concepts of True Materialism described in both Sacred Economics and True Wealth, but I feel they should be more explicit. They take backstage to an argument for dependence on one another. Eisenstein has a new book coming out next month that addresses his concept of interbeingness more directly. I look forward to reading it and getting a greater understanding of his arguments.
Spirituality and Practical Living
I know that I am not the only one who feels this apparent conflict in the lack of a clear relational definition between dependence, interdependence, and self-sufficiency. For the last several years I have studied the voluntary simplicity movement and its off-shoots such as the small house movement and minimalism. I’ve studied other analyses about the systemic problems in our economic system and how to fix them, such as Juliet Shore’s book, True Wealth. A common core in all these are the concepts of interdependence and self-sufficiency. I think the importance of a clear definition of the spectrum of interdependence – where it begins at dependence and ends at self-sufficiency – is of tantamount importance to people interested in these subjects.
The concepts embodied in the voluntary simplicity, minimalism, Plenitude, and small house movements show the practical aspects of this new spirituality – embracing interdependence and self-sufficiency at the same time; allowing one to live a spiritual as well as eminently practical lifestyle while simultaneously living in harmony with our ecosystem and having a vibrant economy.
That is why I prefer a new term, such as relational spirituality, as it places the emphasis on relationships. It acknowledges, for me, interdependence and solidarity, without any connotation to altruism or the negative aspects of dependence. Self-sufficiency is still a virtue, on equal footing with interdependence.