Interdependence and Self Reliance: A Heathen Looks at Community

Most lists of the Nine Noble Virtues include Self Reliance. And even those heathens who don't accept the idea of Nine Noble Virtues often class self reliance as one of their 2 or 3 essential heathen virtues, right up there with courage and strength of will. At the same time, we talk a lot about family and community. In this article, I will argue that our emphasis on self reliance has sometimes been taken too far, to the point where it harms our attempts to form and maintain communities.

We've all met the professional victim, constantly helpless, forever insisting that it's someone else's responsibility to fix their problems, especially those that seem obviously trivial, self created, or both. Moreover, most of us have been told and told again how we ought to help everyone in need, no matter how much they may seem to be perfectly capable of helping themselves, if only they'd bother to try. If we were raised Christian, we've had altruism and self sacrifice preached to us as major virtues, sometimes by people who seem to tacitly excuse themselves from practicing any, while still trying to guilt us into it.

I think Self Reliance made it into the list of heathen virtues as a response to these two influences. It's a response to people expecting us to take care of them or others, when they can quite obviously take care of themselves, if they'd only bother to try.

But we've also all been in a situation where some task was indeed beyond our ability, or our collection of tasks and problems had become overwhelming. We may have gone looking for help, or it may be that friends or family, or even perfect strangers, have noticed and offered help unasked. Sometimes, too, we've simply been offered help with tasks we could have handled alone, out of kindness or generosity, or simple good manners. And that was community in action; people helping others.

We've also all at least heard of communities organizing themselves to share work, or perform similar tasks together, and to share the tools needed for that work. Whether it's a quilting bee or a barn raising, or simply mother and daughters cooking dinner together, this is once again people helping people, and getting closer to each other in the process. Also, quite often, having more fun, or getting more done together than they could have managed with each working separately.

Two months ago, I found myself sitting on my porch roof, nailing down pieces of corrugated metal that had blown loose in a recent windstorm, and wondering what on earth I was doing up there. I'm a middle aged woman who's afraid of heights, and who has never much liked handyman tasks in any case. Clearly I was demonstrating self reliance, but was I also demonstrating lunacy?

Two weeks later, I had a much more pleasant experience with home repairs. I hired a young heathen man, generally reputed to be handy, and had him tackle most of the rest of my pending repairs. I got my house repaired. He got money he needed. And not incidentally, we had some lovely conversations, both while he worked (with my occasional assistance) and afterwards when his girlfriend made dinner for all three of us.

Self Reliance be hanged! I felt much better this way, and farthermore formed bonds with people I didn't know at all well. I can write, and sew, and translate exotic languages, and have fun doing it. I can hammer a nail straight if I absolutely must, or mow a lawn, or lift moderately heavy objects, but I probably won't enjoy it. Other people can fix in 2 hours what would take me all weekend, and have fun doing it. Some enjoy gardening, rather than regarding it as a chore. Still others cook gourmet meals, essentially for fun. Life's much better if I do what I'm good at, in exchange for other people doing what they are good at. I don't think I'm going back onto that roof again unless there's a real emergency.

It's good to be capable of being self reliant. You never know when you'll need to do something and not be able to get help. But it's so much more fun to work together on projects, and to contribute from your strengths rather than trying to do everything yourself.

I've noticed another interesting effect of working together. It seems that groups who work together tend to stay together, whereas groups that simply get together socially, or for ritual, are a bit less likely to last.

One example of this sort of thing is Groa's Hof, at her home in Pennsylvania. Everyone in her kindred, and a lot of other people have worked on it. Without that teamwork, it probably wouldn't exist; more importantly, though, more than one person has mentioned that project to me as a big source of bonding both in the kindred and among everyone who's worked on it.

Another example comes from my days as a Wiccan. The people in my coven were mostly young, and tended to move to new apartments regularly. None of us could afford professional movers; even scraping together money to rent a truck might be difficult. So every time someone moved, we all turned out, complete with other friends and relations, and what vehicles we had, and got the person moved. The people being moved would provide food, and everyone provided labour. We joked we should call the coven the "Move of the Month Club". But it bonded us much more than rituals or classes or even shared recreational activities, and even now, years later, I remember those moves fondly ... in spite of generally getting pretty exhausted at the time.

I don't think anyone in heathenry has a problem with working together and exchanging services, but the idea of self reliance may well make people hesitant to ask. How do you start a "move of the month club" if people expect to be regarded as weak for not simply moving themselves? How do you start an exchange of labour ... perhaps cooking for carpentry ... if the cook doesn't want to be seen as a failure for being barely able to saw straight, and the carpenter doesn't want to admit that he hates cooking and can barely manage to reheat a frozen entree?

Still, that's comparatively easy to get around. The real problem seems to be the person who seems to be unable or unwilling to do things most people regard as trivial.

I've seen people who asked for help with some particular task lectured on self reliance even though they were contributing in other ways. Sometimes the person was temporarily overwhelmed, and looking to get rid of some of their load. Sometimes they were simply incompetent at something other people saw as easy, and unable or unwilling to learn that seemingly easy task, even though they were competent and willing to help with other activities.

This is not a good thing, and tends to lead to an escalation of non-cooperation. The exhausted person drops everything they were doing for others, so as to find time to deal with their personal needs. The person who lacks a key skill stops sharing their other skills, feeling mocked and abused, and may start mocking and abusing others for not being as good at the tasks he finds easy. The next thing you know, you have a collection of self reliant individuals who aren't speaking to each other.

I've seen others who honestly appeared to be completely useless, and demanding besides. Every interaction seems to involve them requesting help, sometimes with trivia. What can we do with someone like this, other than either lecture them on self reliance, or get sucked into constantly helping someone who never seems to get less needy?

Well, this is where I finally start quoting lore: The lame rides a horse, the handless is herdsman, the deaf in battle is bold. (Havamal 71 - Henry Bellows' translation.)

No one is utterly useless. Some may have gotten used to being seen as completely helpless, and seeing themselves that way, but that's a different story. Some may be temporarily completely overwhelmed, and unable to add anything to their present load, but that doesn't mean they couldn't trade something they are presently doing (badly) for something they'd be able to do better.

It seems to me that one good heathen response to someone who seems useless and needy is to try to bring them into the gift exchange. It may take some creativity to find something useful they can do, and some patience to not simply help them with everything, to the point of making it impossible for them to be more than dead weight. But it can be done.

It may also take pushing past their expectations of being a helpless charity case, and your own expectations of being strong and completely self reliant. It will surely take a lot of communication, to find out what they can do, and what's needed to make that possible.

But it still seems better to me than either rejecting them utterly, as "weak" and lacking in self-reliance, or encouraging them to be nothing but a weight to be carried.

More importantly, it builds us into something much more like a real community, and much more like the heathen communities depicted in the lore. People helped each other, even those who were notorious ne'er do wells, or who were clearly heading into trouble. A wise friend or relative might advise that something looked likely to be a bad move, but if the unwise person persisted, even those who'd advised him against his course would be there to help him pick up the pieces, or to avenge his fate if the results had been especially bad.

We don't perhaps want to go all the way back to that point, particularly with people who haven't grown up together in the same family; it may well be excessive to protect someone one hardly knows from all the consequences of their own foolishness. But we can still go farther in that direction without much risk of being exploited by freeloaders, if we simply encourage them to contribute whatever they can. And this, I believe, will make a more pleasant environment for everyone, rather than expecting people to be completely self reliant.