How Much Self Reliance is Necessary?

Despite having lived on the West Coast for decades, I remain a New Englander at my core. Born in Boston and raised in a small town only miles from Walden Pond, I was steeped in New England history and ideas. I read the work of writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Alcott, and learned about the principles of Unitarianism and Transcendentalism (my grandfather on my mother’s side was a Unitarian minister, and my father had also been raised as a Unitarian). Both of my parents, also born and raised in the Boston area, made a point of imparting this history to me and my sisters. We attended Patriots’ Day parades and could recite the Longfellow poem about Paul Revere’s ride. We were imprinted with the values of self-reliance and individualism associated with those early New Englanders, values that have become threaded into our country’s development.

One of the stories my mother repeatedly told me was how one day, when I was three and she was dropping me off at nursery school, I insisted on walking all alone down the quarter-mile driveway and into the woods to the house where the nursery school was held. No, she quoted me, using the high voice of a young child, I want to go by myself. To her credit, and because she prized independence, she let me go.

That spirit of going it alone, has stuck with me. Throughout my life I’ve made a point of being self-supporting and capable of living on my own (without a man’s support). For several periods I have happily lived alone, and I have never shared a bank account with a partner. I have taken solo biking and camping trips for enjoyment, but also to prove to myself that I was tough, both physically and mentally. When my college boyfriend and I spent a summer biking 3,000 miles around Europe, I made sure I could fix my own bike, truing its wheels and changing its tires, adjusting the gears and the brakes. The summer after that I took a job leading a group of teenage girls through England on bikes, which involved putting their bikes together in Heathrow Airport, loading them up with paniers, and guiding them out of the mayhem of airport traffic when most of them had never been on a packed bike before and were scarily wobbly. We spent three weeks navigating the narrow, twisty roads of rural England, camping at night. I was twenty-three at the time, but I never doubted my ability to lead that trip.

When I was diagnosed with ALS, I knew my days as a fully independent woman would be curtailed. A number of years earlier I had witnessed my mother-in-law’s death from ALS. I knew how the disease brought on gradual decline, eventually leading to total helplessness. I quickly began to see my own body weakening. I lost my voice, swallowing became difficult, and all my movements became less assured. Most recently I have watched my toes begin to curl so when I walk barefoot I trip over them. Nevertheless, I have soldiered on. I can still walk and drive and write and pay my bills. Every so often I query myself: Am I still an independent self-sufficient woman? The answer has been yes. I have thought that, if something happened to my husband, I could still manage on my own.

And yet. I cling to railings more than I ever did. When I go on a walk I bring walking sticks. I have trouble with some zippers and with twist-off caps on bottles. Recently I ordered some new writing pads and it took me forever to peel off the plastic wrapping. When I planted flowers in ceramic pots, a spring ritual, I had trouble lifting them. Dancing recently at a friend’s birthday party, I felt jerky as a marionette. Strangest of all, when I lift my fleece robe from its hook, it feels heavy. My mind has not adjusted to these things. I still believe in my body’s competence and that I can make it do whatever I want it to do. Why not — it has always obeyed me in the past. But now that my grip has weakened and my proprioception is off, my mind can’t keep up. It still believes it is housed in the old fleeter, more nimble casing. Maybe it will never keep pace with the ways my body has changed. Maybe a part of me will always think I can do long hikes and lift heavy loads.

These thoughts recently took me back to Emerson’s seminal essay, “Self Reliance.” I have reread it over the years, usually admiring it, I think, but this time I was really unsettled by it, even irked. He stresses the importance of thinking for oneself rather than conforming to prevailing opinion. A valid point, for sure. But he extolls individualism to a fault, I think. When individualism is valued too highly it leads to solipsism, hubris, and disregard for the welfare of the larger community. Sometimes “conforming” is important for the greater good. (Getting vaccines, for example, and wearing masks.)

I want to go by myself, the three-year-old me insisted, and this is the standard I’ve always held myself to. Many times I’ve asked myself over the last few months: Would I still be okay on my own? But why is this so important to me? Isn’t it an example of hubris? Hubris or not, it has come to feel like a cumbersome idea to cling to, that I must always go it alone and never rely on the assistance of others. The belief that I can is an illusion, and not only now — it has always been. It is high time for me to recognize that, not only am I dependent on others — most notably my husband — but there is nothing wrong with depending on others when help is needed. My husband has been calling himself my caregiver for a while and I have laughed it off — let him think that. But who was I kidding? I really do need him. He fixes all our meals, keeps the house in order, answers the phone and makes calls for me. Without him I would be eating pudding for all my meals, the house would be covered in dust and mold, and I would be struggling to figure out how best to use my phone’s speech app to make phone calls on the landline. Could I live on my own now if something happened to my husband? Yes, probably for a short time longer, but it wouldn’t be advisable. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting the inevitable.

I truly appreciate certain rituals of caregiving my husband performs, the morning and evening sessions when he injects medications into my feeding tube. It is something I could do for myself but I love having him do it. He is gentle and methodical. We joke and laugh. The hole in my belly looks as I imagine a bullet hole might look, and both of us find it both unbelievable and comical. We could put our fingers straight into my stomach if we wanted to (we don’t.). The ritual brings us closer, makes us both keenly aware of our love. My dependence on him doesn’t matter to either of us then. I think we both appreciate that I have relaxed and accepted my growing dependence.

So this is how it has turned out for me. The limits of self-reliance could not be clearer. I need people to stay alive, and the truth is I have always needed people, whether I’ve wanted to acknowledge it or not. We are social beings, interdependent from birth both physically and psychologically. My strident claims of independence, helpful as they were in establishing my identity, were always partly an illusion. I wish more people could have an ALS moment like mine, a recognition that interdependence is an immutable characteristic of the human condition.

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Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.

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