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The futility of self-reliance

Two weeks ago, I ran four miles in (for me) record time and only got off the treadmill because I had class in 30 minutes. A couple days after, I was a ball of pain and exhaustion, and I didn’t have the energy to bike or eat. My jaw hurt if I had to chew too much. No wonder I didn’t leave my room for a week — I couldn’t. I didn’t get a particularly vicious strain of the flu or anything. This is just something that happens to me from time to time. I go from being a relatively happy and productive person to having to decide whether I’m going to eat or shower because I don’t have the energy for both.

Unfortunately for me, the quarter system is very unforgiving of my recurring three-week breakdown. Woe is me if I have midterms or projects due during a bad week. The idea of doing homework during such times would be laughable if I had the energy to laugh. So at the end of each breakdown, I have to do something pretty horrible. I have to ask for help. I have to ask for extensions, for leniency, for extra office hours. I have to ask counselors and advisors to write letters to professors corroborating what happened. I have to reach out to all the responsibilities I abandoned — the presidents of groups I’m in, my editors, my bosses — and beg them for leniency. I have to trust in people’s decency and understanding and willingness to help. This is terrifying.

After all, trust isn’t really something we’re encouraged to develop. We are encouraged to be independent, to be self reliant, to be individualistic. We pay lip service to cooperation and teamwork, but we praise above all the lone genius. We are suspicious of strangers, of the government, of the church, of anything that claims authority, of everything that isn’t the self. We have extravagant systems set in place to circumvent the apparently innate awfulness of humankind.

I’m not bashing self-reliance or individualism. Having grown up in a collectivist culture, I very clearly see the benefits of individualism. But I also very clearly see the drawbacks, and one of them is that we suffer alone. We don’t have to, of course. But most of us do. Seeing independence as a virtue often means seeing any kind of need for help or dependence as a sin. And the high status of the self-reliant often means that we don’t seek help until we’re desperate — and even then only with reluctance.

So each time I crash, I pretend this time will be different. I pretend that I can walk half a mile to class even though I can’t get out of bed. I pretend that I can make a brain no longer able to form intelligible sentences do complex math. I pretend that this time I will do the impossible and single-handedly pull myself up by my bootstraps and succeed on my own merits because I am a strong independent woman who don’t need no help, dammit.

But that’s a ludicrous proposition. To a certain extent, it’s downright delusional. We don’t live in a Randian universe where wholly self-sufficient people who, by the sweat of their virtuously selfish brows, build our civilization from the ground up while we morally repugnant weaklings rely on each other for support. Self-reliance does not equal virtuosity, and dependence does not signal moral weakness. We live in a world where Stanford students are assigned at least two advisors before even stepping on campus because we know even the top 0.061% of high school graduates do better with someone (or multiple someones) helping them out. We live in a world where every professor of mine has been almost absurdly accommodating of me just not attending class or doing work for three weeks and then begging forgiveness and leniency after the fact.

We live in a world where despite our institutionalized mistrust and deification of the individual, once we find the courage to reach out, we can rely on each other. And maybe reach out for help a few steps before we fall off the brink, instead of only when we’re on the edge.

Contact Dabiyyah Agbere at bagbere ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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