Coping with specialization: reliance vs. resilience

Sorry Ralph, self-reliance is impossible. Need proof? Let’s look at my life. I’m a researcher who relies on other peoples money to fund my research and a vast array of  other people’s  expertise, technology, and patience to get that research done. The concepts and world views I use in my professional and personal life have been developed by other, smarter thinkers over many generations. Someone else grew the food I eat. Someone else produces my entertainment. I rely on friends and family for emotional support, which is often conferred over a vastly complicated communication network. Even the air I breath is provided by an immensely complex interaction between the geo and biosphere. Even if I were to renounce my ultra-reliant existence and only rely on Mother Nature for food and shelter, my sense of independence would still be illusory. The bit of “wilderness” I found would probably be a reserve or piece of property set up and protected by the government. Its ecosystem would be, at least indirectly, managed by my fellow human beings.

In truth, I am and will always be a specialist who relies on other specialists. Truly, I am a cog in a machine.  That mechanistic view, the sense that you can never truly stand on your own, is soul crushing. Emerson, Thoreau, Wendell Berry, and many others have commented on the sense of dislocation, nihilism, and dysfunction created by specialization. Each had his own solution. For Emerson and Thoreau, it was to seek self-reliance and a transcendent experience in nature. For Berry it is a return toward agrarianism and christian values. We all cope in our own way.

For me, the answer is in cultivating self-resilience rather than self-reliance. What is resilience? Resilience, in a ecological, psychological, and organizational context, is the ability to cope and adapt to catastrophic change. Modernity, which is defined by specialization, is that catastrophy.  Coping requires understanding and honoring our physical and emotional being. Resilience is not about pulling away from the system, but making the system more adaptive. It is not about controlling external events, but rather your response to them.

This blog explores how to cultivate resilience in the physical, emotional, and organizational domains in our life. It is an attempt to bring many of my personal interests (sustainability, nutrition, fitness, and psychology) under one banner.


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