Monday, March 02, 2009

Self Reliance Vs. (?) Unity

My visiting teacher is the Queen of Food Storage. Perhaps this is a title I'm not actually authorized to bestow, but I've never known anybody like her. (Do not close the window right now: this is not, I repeat, is NOT a food storage post.) The Queen also homeschools her two children. Her oldest, a girl, is a week older than Jedi, but she is on at least a fifth grade level in all of her subjects. Her four year-old is reading fluently. While she was over here one day, we got to talking about things that might keep you from the store for a few months--unemployment, natural disasters, THE QUARANTINE FROM AVIAN BIRD FLU, you know, pleasant, spiritual, visiting teaching stuff. She said, "We'll need to do everything from home," and she made a list of several thing including, "teaching our children." Very interesting. I realized, on that day, that among all of her other reasons for homeschooling, self-reliance is near the top of the list. I had never heard this viewpoint before.

I have a sister I've been assigned to visit for a year. She is active and takes callings. She has several close friends, a few of which she has been quite instrumental in re-activating. She has been a stay-at-home mom for her entire adult life, even when times have been very hard. She and her husband pay cash for everything and live simply. She will not let us visit. Ever. The few days she has said, "Just drop by," she isn't home. When we drop by notes or goodies, she will sometimes acknowledge them, but very rarely thanks us. At first I thought she hated me, but as I've persisted to know her through other avenues, I've come to see that for her, at least in part, agreeing to visiting teaching visits is somehow acting less than self-reliant.

Some years ago, Suburban Hippie and I sat next to each other in Sunday School while our teacher took us through King Benjamin's excellent sermon about caring for the poor in the Book of Mosiah. He makes it plain that it matters not why a person is in need, it is up to us to meet that need. SH and I were amazed as the discussion in the class deteriorated into the reasons why it is bad to give to the homeless. Most of the people volunteering comments were individuals for whom I have immense respect.

Nearly a year ago, The Queen was asked to teach a fifth Sunday lesson about food storage. A man in our congregation talked about food storage as a missionary work tool, citing a conversation he had with a neighbor as he moved into his house. The neighbor was amazed at the amount of canned food this ward member had stored in his garage. At some point the neighbor asked what would happen during a crises when word got out that this member had a garage full of food. He replied, "That is why I keep a loaded shotgun." There was some very nervous laughter in our Sunday School class at that point--and other laughter that was not so nervous, which made me even more nervous.

Years ago, Plantboy served as a financial clerk under a new (and extremely compassionate) bishop. He had done his work for several weeks without ever saying anything to me about what he did, when he came home looking quite sick one day. When I asked him what the matter was, he told me that he had written out a check to pay a bill on a satellite dish. Plantboy and I didn't even have cable--it was too expensive. It was very hard for me to write the fast offering check the next month: after all, why should I be paying for someone else's folly? I felt I was being punished instead of blessed for being self-reliant.

So why all the anecdotes? As I look around, I've begun to realize that for all of the handbooks and talks given on the subject, self-reliance is an idea that means different things to different people. Does it mean you don't have any credit card debt? Does it mean that you have the credit card debt, but that you pay your bill each month? Does it mean that you have monthly limit on the Visa you use for "extras" and that your dad pays it every month? Does it mean that you are trying really hard to get back on your feet and feel okay about the bishop occassionally paying your bill out of fast offering funds?

In the March Ensign there are some excellent articles on self-reliance. I especially enjoyed Elder Ballard's talk. There is much to learn, and always a long way to go with this ideal.

The following quote, appeared both in Elder Ballard's talk as well as the gospel classic talk from Elder Marion G. Romney, "Without self-reliance one cannot exercise the innate desire to serve. How can we give if there is nothing there? Food for the hungry cannot come from empty shelves. Money to assist the needy cannot come from an empty purse. Support and understanding cannot come from the emotionally starved. Teaching cannot come from the unlearned. And most important of all, spiritual guidance cannot come from the spiritually weak."

It was this quote, and a few others, that got me to thinking that if we are not extremely careful, our desire for self-reliance can undermine the unity we should feel toward our family, ward members and neighbors. I think it can also undermine our understanding of the atonement.

I think we can give, even when our own reserves (of whatever) are low. Have we not often been taught and seen evidenced in our own lives that when you are feeling down, the best thing to do is find someone else to cheer up? I think of the poor families that fed my husband and I on our missions and the joy it brought them to share what little they had. Sometimes those who are enduring the greatest emotional turmoil are best equipped to listen and understand others with similar issues. Who has not had periods of extreme spiritual weakness when we must go to others and the Savior in complete submissiveness and ask for help? It can be argued that these are the times of greatest growth.

Perhaps we must all come to a place where we can reconcile The Parable of the Ten Virgins with that of the Widow's Mite. In the first, the five wise virgins were instructed not to share, because if they did then nobody would have enough, not even those who had worked hard for what they had. In the second, the widow was praised for giving up the very last mite that she had instead of feeding herself. Would I go hungry myself to make sure my children had enough to eat? For sure. But what about another ward member? A neighbor? That is where I'm not as sure.

I'll close these ramblings with King Benjamin, "For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy. And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another."

Isn't he saying that no matter how hard we try, we will never actually be self-reliant because we will always be indebted to God? Indeed, thinking we can do it all on our own makes us guilty of pride and aligns us with Satan's easy, pre-mortal dismissal of a savior.

So what do you think? How do you reconcile the idea of self-reliance with the idea of unity? In a Church where both important concepts are preached with regularity, what do you define as "self-reliance?"


Suburban Hippie said...

What a great post.

Janssen said...

I'd never really thought about this conflict before - very interesting.

And the idea of paying for someone else's satellite makes me just physically ill.

Z. Marie said...

Yes, the thought the church is paying for someone's satellite service is just sickening.
But I think self-reliance means we CAN take care of ourselves. I guess that would include schooling our children. But does accepting service from other people make us less self-reliant? Heck no! Could we make do if other people weren't bringing us meals after we have babies or if we were without electricity? Those are bigger issues.

Janssen said...

By the way, I saw this yesterday and thought of you:

chris w said...

I heard a talk once that clarified that when we are commanded to help the poor, it is not only those who are poor in money or things, but also those who are poor in spirit. People who are poor in spirit are usually not making the best choices and are harder to help because we are upset by their actions. However, they need our help even more because of their actions. That doesn't mean that we stop them from having consequences and learning from their mistakes. We can give of our time, our love, and our knowledge and experience. Human nature dictates that we are much more likely to change and make better choices when we feel loved and supported than when we feel judged and criticized.

Those poor decisions can include financial choices, such as a parent that decides to live outside their means and then puts their family at risk of dire circumstances.

I personally know someone who was receiving help from the bishop because she and her husband had made poor choices. It may have included paying for something like a satellite because they were under contract. He told her that she had to destroy her credit cards and that if she used any more credit they would no longer receive help. Although I was still disgusted by that family's choices, I learned that I don't always know the circumstances and I for sure don't know what conditions the bishop has set. It is possible that act helped them to never use credit cards again.

I believe we are responsible, we have been commanded, and we have made covenants to help those in need, and that we will be judged by how much we let people (close to us or far away) suffer.

Having said that, I believe that the minute choice is removed from the equation because the government decides to equalize things, that it is no longer charity and it no longer helps the person giving OR the person receiving. That is when entitlement and feelings of "I deserve" come in.

Choice is what makes giving so powerful and plants the seeds of change.

chris w said...

Janssen - the Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed is AWESOME!

Desmama said...

Interesting post. Lots to think about.

My dad tells of a guy in our stake who, upon bearing his testimony one Fast Sunday, brought out his revolver and placed it on the pulpit, pronouncing that "This here's part of mah food storage." He was, er, an interesting man, from what I hear.

Michelle said...

I see no conflict what-so-ever.

To me, self-reliance means we take care of ourselves the best we can, making wise decisions now, preparing for the future to the best of our ability. It is the exact oppostire of entitlement. No one is entitled to a week's worth of meals after they have a baby or for the Elder's Quorum to move them. These are services given to us that help us to become united as a ward. As soon as someone gets offended that a service by their visiting teachers was not rendered, they are stating they feel entitled to it which takes away from the unity of the ward. that stated. Let other's serve you. It is the greatest way to feel love towards someone.

I am sure Plantboy felt sick inside about the check he wrote (I would have too), but no one but the bishop knows all of the circumstances of that family who received a satellite payment and we should not judge the family nor the bishop's judgement.

WesternerinMaryland said...

Wow! Why are you not the RS Pres instead of me? We discuss self-reliance often and are currently working with a member who is 80 and has a different view of SR than I or my Bishop. It is a different world that we each come from, but I hope we can help take care of each other when we need it and take care of ourselves - especially spiritually. I think if we do this the rest will come easier. Thanks for the thoughts!

Science Teacher Mommy said...

As for the anecdotes shared in my post, I mostly wasn't trying to pass judgment--even about the sat dish. It was nearly a decade ago and the feeling expressed was my younger self. I really think it is probably better to help a family out for a month or two, even with ridiculous bills, then to get everything sent to a creditor while a person is trying to make changes. I'm glad Plantboy hasn't had that calling since--I don't WANT to know what the bishop is using the money for. That is between him and the Lord, and I doubt anybody takes his calling more seriously than himself.

A couple of you mentioned "entitlement" which is a very interesting word. In the Proclamation on the Family it is written that children are "entitled" to be born in a family with a mother and father. So when they are not (as is often the case) is there an obligation for other to step in and help? I think so. But when others don't, are there organizations that must take up the slack? When we start talking about the evil of entitlement programs, then we are also talking about programs that benefit kids--young kids who have not chosen to be where they are and will have little way out without outside help. Does it always work? Often not, but something must be done.

And one man's entitlement program might be another man's democracy, or his means to greater access to democracy. All of the following are paid for with some form of taxes, yet I would guess that all of us have utilized at least one of these--the federal highway system, public education, WIC, Free and Reduced Lunch, Medicaid, Medicare, COBRA, student loans. . .

Even collective health insurance was once see as pure communism, particularly the idea that employeers would purchase all or part of it. And a quick word about corporations: the guy at the top making the most money might just be the most ruthless; not necessarily the most productive or hardest working. I would argue that it isn't just the "poor" who feel entitled.

Sorry, I didn't mean to digress to politics. That seems to happen to me. :)

I agree with Michelle, that when we live each law perfectly, there is no conflict. The Lord wouldn't give both commandments with such strictness ("if you are not one, you are not mine") if living each them simultaneously was not possible. I think my rambling here was more to point out my own attitudes and how they have evolved. I think it is hard for me to live these both because I tend to be judgmental. I must admit that I really grit my teeth in frustration when I have a friend tell me that they aren't making ends meet and getting help from sources X, Y and Z, when I'm waking up at 3:30 every morning to work so that I don't have to ask for help. It doesn't mean that I'm not struggling with a bevy of other issues.

The last point I really want to emphasize here, however, comes from CS Lewis. As his wife was dying, he spent hundreds of hours in prayer. A friend teased, "Do you think to change the will of God." Lewis gave a sardonic laugh; with his depth of understanding of things spirtual, he knew as well as a patriarch that you don't change God's will. His reply? "I don't pray to change God. I pray to change myself." Much dicussion has been given here to the "best" approach to helping the poor in body/spirit. When, truthfully, God could fix these things with the flick of his finger. He commands us to help others so that we might be changed ourselves. On the (too few) occassions when I have given out of pure love without a trace of judgment, I feel a change take place in myself that is simultaneously humbling and euphoric. In those rare moments I know that God is doing far more than giving a homeless man a sandwich or visiting a stressed out sister or paying a satellite bill--he is perfecting a saint.

chris w said...

LOVE your thoughts on C.S. Lewis. Just to clarify: I don't have any problems with government programs. I have applied for money from government funds to help run programs for at-risk kids. I absolutely agree with you. My problem is the idea that it's not fair that some people make a lot of money and that some make a little and that we need to "equalize" everyone. We are all entitled to the OPPORTUNITY to succeed on our own (with a lot of help from each other) - we are not entitled to success. That plan was rejected for a greater plan based on free will.

Sunnie said...

i really, really like that quote from marion g. romney. it puts self-reliance in a whole new light, and covers many facets of it. it's not just about food storage- it's about so many other things. and without our tanks full, how can we serve others to the best of our abilities??? very thought provoking.

wildrose said...

Dear Sis-in-Law,
Beautiful thoughts. Having lived on both sides of this self-reliance issue, I have given it alot of thought. I'm sure that everyone makes financial and spiritual mistakes, but the biggest mistake we can ever make is to think that we have or can do it by ourselves. Even if we were brilliant, talented people who worked extremly hard for what we have, we got our brains, our energy, and our talents from the Lord and from everyone else who came before us and made our opportunities possible. There are always people who, for reasons we may not understand, don't have the abilities or opportunities others do.
When my husband served as Bishop, he had many chances to help people out with church assistance. Sometimes, he questioned whether they deserved the help. He was very concious of the sacred funds he was responsible for. He always erred on the side of generousity. He felt that he would rather face the Lord and tell he he had used the funds wrongly than tell him that he had failed to care for the poor, needy and fatherless. I think that perhaps that is a safe line for us all to fall over.

Scully said...

As a new Relief Society president, I have been thinking a lot about that issue, especially since I am in a YSA ward, which means the guidelines are slightly adjusted when it comes to things like food storage and financial help and things like that. The week after I was sustained there was an incident which made me a little upset, simply because ward members HAD to step in because someone refused to take care of herself. It made me a little mad, seeing as how many people in the ward were struggling with the same issues and not receiving help. Interestingly enough, in a recent training meeting on the welfare system, a letter from the First Presidency was read suggesting that members think twice about accepting government assistance related to the massive economic bailout currently underway if such assistance would continue to enable bad financial habits. That really woke me up.

Genjunky said...

Yes - I am genjunky & Westerner in md. a jeckyl & hyde sort of thing.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Thanks for all the discussion ladies, and to those of you that emailed with more personal experiences which flavored your opinions. I've been very thoughtful this week and it is nice.

Sherry said...

I have been thinking about this post for a couple of days. I don't really have anything intelligent to say- or at least not a coherent way to say the things I've been thinking. But I wanted to let you know that it has had me thinking, thinking, thinking.

tamathy said...

This post has had me thinking too. I've heard the old "That's why I keep a shot gun" line before. I always doubt I'm going to want to survive in a world where I have to shoot my neighbors rather than share some wheat. If things are that bad wouldn't we all be repenting like crazy, sharing all we have and praying every minute for forgiveness and miracles.
This post also got me thinking about when I was a teen and my family started getting food from the church. My parents had 17 or 18 kids at the time. My dad had a good job but because of being home with an injury and medical bill and yes- the fact that they had 17 kids -it wasn't enough. I was being taught at church that this was what the church's welfare program existed for- you paid your tithing and fast offering and when you needed help the church was there. I was also being taught at church that we were entitled to personal revelation about the size of our families. I didn't ask my parents what specific revelation they'd received. I saw them praying all the time, I saw my dad working all the time. I saw them scrimping and going without and doing all they could to care for their family- I assumed this was all somehow Heavenly Father's plan. My parent's were supposed to have a million kids and work hard and Heavenly Father -through the church- and when my parents couldn't do it on their own- would make sure we didn't starve. I assumed that's how everyone at church viewed our situation as well. They were the ones teaching me this stuff. Then one Sat. night we were planning to have a church supplied roast for dinner, but somehow it didn't get put in the oven on time so instead we sliced it into steaks. The next day in sharing time they were talking about being thankful for food and my little brother said we'd had steak for dinner. Someone from the primary was upset by that and went to the bishop who called my parents in and questioned them - they explained about the roast. He told them they should eat the roast as a roast from now on because it didn't look good for people getting help from the church to be eating steak. (I know all this because I was a nosy teen with very keen ears and with 17 kids my parents had very little privacy) I'd known since I since I was 7 and my parents had 8 kids that people outside the church thought my parents were nuts, but now I realized I had been assuming a lot about the people I went to church with. It turns out lots of people thought my parents were just irresponsible and they resented their fast offering going toward feeding kids they didn't think should exist. That sounds harsh. I doubt they said "kid #5 through 18 shouldn't exist". All those people were kind and generous, but for a (short) while I wouldn't eat anything that came from a can marked Deseret. I got over it because I was also being taught by my parents and these same people at church that we all exist to test each other and none of us are perfect- also - I got hungry. Whether my family existed because my parents received revelation or because they were just plain crazy could be debated til the end when we know the truth of all things, but families like mine- right or wrong- certainly provide test of faith and character for the people that create them, the people that grow up in them and everyone that comes in contact with them. In the end -rather than simply feeding us- that's the purpose all this food we have stored up will serve as well.

Ashlee said...

I think a) it is very easy for people to go beyond the mark and b) some confuse self-reliance with selfishness. I like what else Elder Romney says in his talk, "Without self-reliance one cannot exercise these innate desires to serve." True celestial self-reliance includes the desire and the ability to help others. The virgins didn't share because they couldn't share. It's an oil that can't be shared--"the oil of spiritual preparedness cannot be shared" (Elder Ashton). Part of being spiritually prepared means that you are prepared to take care of your own AND to help others where you are able. Good post that got me thinking. :)

Caitlin said...

So I left a comment and either it didn't post or I left it on another post somewhere on your blog. It has just been one of "those" days. I am a little sad about it, and you should be too because it was very complimentary to you. Oh well.

Stacie said...

I'll comment to your blog and to your email message to me here, Nan. This is how I look at Bro. Romney's talk and how I look at self-reliance:

To me, self reliance doesn't mean one is 100% debt free and can therefore buy a dinner for a mom in need, as mentioned in your email example. To me it means that one is able to MANAGE his/her own circumstances without the perpetuating dole of someone else. If you have a small balance on your credit card, YOU worked things out to pay your bill, not someone else. If you budget your finances in such a way as to be able to help a neighbor in need temporarily, YOU MANAGE your budget to do so. Your "self-reliance" IS what gives you the FREDOM to do exactly that.

What Bro. Romney is speaking of in his talk, in my opinion, when he says, "Food for the hungry cannot come from empty shelves. Money to assist the needy cannot come from an empty purse. Support and understanding cannot come from the emotionally starved. Teaching cannot come from the unlearned. And most important of all, spiritual guidance cannot come from the spiritually weak." is that when you are dependent on the constant aid of another to get by yourself, you cannot serve anyone, financially, emotionally or otherwise.

What you did to serve your neighbor is not negating your self-reliance. It was a charitable act. And I emphasize "act" because that's what it was. It was not a "program" to give the sister dinner every night indefinitely so she never has to learn how to feed her own family; rather, it was a single act to help a friend in need (and her need was not a perpetual need due to not working to provide for herself, it was a momentary need due to an extenuating circumstance. Therefore she is not a "gullible gull" in accepting your dinner either).

I am proud of our Bishop who, when approached by members, active and inactive, for assistance, rarely gives aid without requiring some work in return on the part of the individual. It may be nothing more than making them commit to attending church regularly for a while before aid can be offered. This way he is helping the person to help themselves because he knows by working in some way for the aid he gives, lessons can be taught and a sense of "I earned this- it was not just a handout" can permiate within the person. It gives a sense of accomplishment to earn what you are given. That being said, giving AND RECEIVING charitable ACTS, not unending doles, are how we feel a sense of accomplishment and humanity as well, as we become more like our Savior.

Bro. Romney as says, "We are all self-reliant in some areas and dependent in others. Therefore, each of us should strive to help others in areas where we have strengths. At the same time, pride should not prevent us from graciously accepting the helping hand of another when we have a real need. To do so denies another person the opportunity to participate in a sanctifying experience." I love this statement because I am more self-reliant in some things and less in others. I have a friend who has TAUGHT me how to make my own bread from scratch starting with grinding my own wheat. She has TAUGHT me how to can and and garden. I benefited from her self-reliance in these areas and now am more self-reliant in this myself. But I didn't ask or expect or feel entitled to have her make bread, can and garden FOR me. Rather, she showed me how to do it for myself. And I am more self-reliant in other areas than her that I hope have helped her in return.

To me that is what self-reliance and charity means and is all about. :)