Self-Sustainability Isn’t a Thing

There’s a buzzword that I keep hearing from colleagues in the social services sector: self-sustainability. If you gathered a bunch of professionals in one room and asked them what their primary mission is – not as individuals or organizations, but as social services agencies – my guess is that a lot of them would say, “To help the people we serve become self-sustaining (or self-sufficient or independent or whatever).”

And that’s strange to me. Because no one is self-sustainable.

Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate that point. Imagine, for a moment, that you are lost in the desert. How long would you survive? Probably not long. You aren’t self-sustaining. You need things like food, shelter, and water.

But let’s say that you had the skills to survive in the desert. You know how to get water from cacti (and which cacti it’s okay to get water from), how know which plants are edible and which ones aren’t, and you can use what’s around you to make a crude shelter. You still aren’t self-sustaining. You are dependent on the environment around you, as well as the people who taught you how to survive.

I am not lost in the desert right now (and, hopefully, neither are you). But I am dependent on a wide array of people and institutions. I’m dependent on by family, my employer, my landlord, the various companies from which I buy the things I need, the government services that make it possible for all of these things to operate, and so on. I am enmeshed in a complex web web of relationships. I am interdependent with others.

I am not self-sustainable. You are not self-sustainable. No one is self-sustainable.

Self-sustainability isn’t a thing.

We are all interdependent.

When people in social services sector say ‘self-sustainability’, what they mean is ‘interdependent in a way that I approve of’. That tends to mean, ‘interdependent in a more-or-less middle class way’: depending on their employer, on their landlord (or mortgage holder), on the companies from which they buy the things they need, and so on. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (well, there are many things wrong with that, but that’s for another post, maybe). But when we call that form of interdependence ‘self-sustainability’, we hide the fact that it is interdependence. We make it look like it’s something else, like it’s independence. And, in turn, we make other ways of being interdependent look bad, like they’re being dependent.

And that helps us disguise the fact that we’re all relying on each other; that we’re all interdependent; that none of us is self-sustaining. It helps us, in other words, lie to ourselves about the nature of the world.

The Fat Nutritionist: If Only Poor People Understood Nutrition!

The idea is that, before we worry about nutrition (i.e., “instrumental food”) we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it. Consistently. And it’s got to be acceptable to us (which, for some people, might mean not coming from the garbage, or meeting certain standards of preparation) and it’s got to taste reasonably good. A little variety is nice, too.

These are not silly little preferences that can be brushed off lightly — even “tasting good,” which seems to always be the first thing thrown out the window when someone decides to change their diet For Health Reasons.

When People Tell You That Everything You’re Doing Is Wrong

Over at Coffeehouse Contemplative, Jeff Nelson has a parody that beat me to an issue I’ve been wanting to address: the idea that everything you’re doing is wrong.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things I am apparently doing wrong: tying my shoes, adding milk to scrambled eggs, putting oil in pasta, peeling bananas, crossing out words, eating tic tacs, eating cupcakes, cutting bread, and putting rolls of toilet paper on the toilet paper holder. “You’re doing it wrong,” has become the cute click-bait listicle way of saying “Here’s a different approach.”

And I like cute click-bait listicles. That’s probably another thing I’m doing wrong. But we live in a hypercritical culture. That’s especially true on the internet, where ‘well… actually’ has become a mantra.

So, I want to say just three, easy things:

You are doing things wrong. I am doing things wrong. It is a fact of human life that we make mistakes and we build bad habits. Some of the things we do wrong matter: we support unethical companies, we hurt other people, we make the world a little worse or we fail to make it a little better.

Different isn’t wrong. You can tie your shoes however you want. You can put oil in your pasta. You can cut bread from the top. There might be ways to do things that are different. There might be ways to do things that are better. But that doesn’t mean that they way you are doing things is wrong.

As long as it works and it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s fine. This is a key point. Do the things that work for you and don’t hurt anyone else. That’s fine. That’s good. But also seek to improve from there, because who wants to settle for fine?

In a world that is increasingly critical, we don’t need more lists of things we’re doing wrong. We need permission to be doing the best we can, and encouragement to do better tomorrow.

Renovations

Sorry for the relative silence around here recently, but as you can see I’ve been doing some renovations to the site. I’m sure I’ll be finding bits an pieces that need fixed over the next few days and weeks (and months and years). If you find anything that you think needs my attention, please head over to my home page and use the contact form to drop me a message. Thanks!

I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule soon.

As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I posses a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. John Donne placed this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the maine.” Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.