This material was first presented as a series of lectures in Estel Sidhevair beginning on Nov. 5, 2008. These lectures weregeared to online community members of the “Fantasy Archipelago” in the Old Virtual grid and in particular to the Elf Circle Guardians who include the ethics of the Nine Virtues in their training to act as mentors and first responders to online trouble for the approximately 1500 members of Elf Circle (EC). Please note that the material is also presented with a distinct mythopoeic approach, basically written by and for creatures of fantasy. The original lecture transcript has been modified for a more general audience.
While the Nine Noble Virtues are drawn from Norse religious perspectives, this introduction and the nine lectures which follow also draw from other ethical and religious constructs from around the world including Celtic, Hellenic, and East Indian perspectives.
The original lectures were presented online on Wednesday nights at 8 PM with some breaks for various holidays. They were facilitated by the direct avatar interactions made possible via digital worlds. The lectures were all presented in the main conference area of the community center (Enedh Gwaith) on the virtual island of Estel Sidhevair.In some cases there were guest speakers, where appropriate their remarks are included with the main lectures. Each lecture was followed by a discussion section. These talks at times lasted far into the night, sometimes growing rather heated.
Please read the about the virtue of Self-Reliance below and then follow the links in this section to read about the other virtues that comprise the Nine Noble Virtues.
The Nine Noble Virtues are Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self-Reliance, and Perseverance.
The 9 Virtues lecture series was presented originally by the Faelf who comprise the members and avatars of Westernesste and the Sidhevairs. The Sidhevairs are a non-profit arts and educational association which share a group tax exemption under 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code as a chartered coordinating subordinate organization of Westernesste. Donations to us are tax deductible. You can learn learn more about our parent organization by visiting the Westernesste site. You can learn more about the organization of The Sidhevairs, see our EIN letter, our DUNS information, our charter, and our articles of association by clicking here.
About the Original Lecture Series
The class materials for Guardianship in Elf Circle define Self-Reliance as “…the ability and desire to provide for one’s self.”
Related and interweaving concepts are self-sufficiency, confidence, autonomy, sovereignty, self-trust and self-knowledge. It is very appropriate that the virtue of self-reliance builds upon and follows the virtue of industriousness. In the modern folkloric religious tradition of Asatru, there are powerful links between the virtues. In an exploration of industriousness we learn of the value of hard work. This clearly relates to the ability to make our own ways in the world rather than relying upon others for our needs. And, while we honor industriousness and value hospitality, neither can function without the courage to take personal responsibility, self-discipline, and a willingness to provide for ourselves. At the same time, we also value compassion, and we consider that at times people will falter, and it is for those times when we have strived and failed, or come upon hard times that hospitality is intended rather than for those who through laziness, or an unwillingness to rely upon themselves neglect their own needs.
Self-reliance is a virtue that encourages dependence upon our own personal strength and character to realize our dreams and care for our own needs. In such an approach to ethics and virtues, we rely then upon an internal and self-imposed morality which involves a clear reliance upon ourselves. Crucial then, to any real approach to self-reliance, is self knowledge.
The Tao Te Ching advises that:
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”
The virtue of self-knowledge is lauded in many ancient and modern sacred texts. In the religion of Jainism, for example, self-reliance takes a central place since the concept of the independence of each individual soul is a fundamental principle. In Jainism, caring for one’s self is seen as the way to achieve such independence. In Sanskrit self-reliance is “Shraman Dharm.” A “shraman” is one who engages in “shram” or industriousness and “dharm” is a philosophy of right thoughts and actions. In other words, a “shraman” engages in an industrious approach to improve his or her life.
In Jainism, self-reliant people are expected to understand that they are responsible for their accomplishments and privations, successes and failures, gains and losses. In this sort of religious view individuals are responsible for the course of their lives. Similarly, in Asatru, the modern religion that is the source for the 9 Noble Virtues, practitioners of the virtue of self-reliance must develop the related characteristics of independence, confidence, endurance, fortitude, resilience, and they must take personal responsibility to avoid harm.
Many religious philosophies tend to view good fortune or ultimate salvation as an external reward won through some sort of appeasing or obedience to an entity of supernatural ability. In this sort of approach there can be a tendency to place reliance less upon the self and more upon the hope that prayers, worship or rituals might persuade an external deity to bestow favors, answer needs, or intercede in troubles.
Self-reliance on the contrary, encourages the development of intrinsic characteristics emerging from personal responsibility in the shaping of individual lives. This does not exclude the existence or impact of religious, supernatural, or spiritual entities and instead can actually extend to what could be viewed as improved relationships with such deities. In a self-reliant religious view, a desire for gifts from the Gods involves an effort to make oneself worthy of such blessings.
Religions emphasizing self-reliance often view their Gods as entities who most admire those who are capable of standing upon their own two feet rather than beseeching their Gods for favors. Practitioners of these religions see themselves as able to make their own way in the world and from that position of self-reliance choosing to seek a relationship with their deities. That relationship built upon self-reliance requires self knowledge.
In Ancient Greece the aphorism “Know Thyself” ????? sea?t?? was inscribed in golden letters on the lintel over the entrance to the pronaos (courtyard) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. This inscription has been attributed to a number of revered Greek sages including Chilon of Sparta, Socrates, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Solon of Athens. Certainly, many of us have read Socrates who emphasized the importance of self knowledge in his works which clearly advocate self-realization, study and awareness particularly through his method of inquiry and questioning. Some sources attribute this concept to Phemonoe a mythical Greek poet. The first Pythia (priestess) of Delphi, this pre-Homeric poet and the daughter of Apollo was also credited as the inventor of hexameter verses, a poetic meter of significance to the ancient Greeks.
The rhythmic meter of hexameter is said to have been the way in which the trance induced wisdoms of Delphi were produced. A later poet, the Roman, Juvenal quoted this phrase in Greek and noted that this concept descended from heaven (de caelo). In Latin, this concept of self knowledge was equally valued where it was translated as “Nosce te ipsum”. The theological inquiry into self knowledge involves a fundamental exploration of the meaning of life.
Classical Greek and Roman cultures are certainly not alone in advancing this knowledge, and the value of knowing oneself continues to be extolled. More recently, Sri Satya Sai Baba said:
“Know thyself, because every thing is in you. Nothing is from outside, the outside universe is in you in a miniature form.”
Similarly, Meher Baba suggested that it is possible “…to remove the veil between you and the God by knowing yourself.”
While “Knowing Thyself” involves deep questions of personal and spiritual transformation and existential insights, it can also be extended to less lofty but no less important self knowledge involving our habits, moods, ability to exercise restraint, our ethics and other personal aspects of ourselves we are wise to struggle with. We spend a good deal of our life in pursuit of experience and tend to look outward for ideas and yet both “insight” and “inspiration” involve turning our focus inwards for knowledge.
As St. Augustine said:
“People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
Self knowledge can also be said to help us in our ability to understand others, but there is a clear tendency for each of us to see in others and in the world what we see in ourselves.
Anais Nin said that “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
And Carl Jung said something very similar: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Part of being able to rely on ourselves involves our ability to scrutinize what we project and create and take responsibility for what we see. There is an old Yiddish folk tale that tells of a wise old man who sat outside the walls of a great city. When travelers approached, they would ask him, “What kind of people live in this city?” And the old man would answer, “What kind of people live in the place where you came from?” If a traveler answered, "Mostly bad people live in the place where I come from,” the old man would respond, “Continue on; you will find mostly bad people here.” But if the traveler replied, “Mostly good people live in the place where I came from,” then the old man would say, “Enter, for here, too, you will find mostly good people.”
This tendency we have to project our internal view upon the world is beautifully expanded upon by Ralph Waldo Emerson who noted that:
“People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”
Emerson is also the author of an important essay on the topic of “Self-Reliance” which can be found here: http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm In this essay the Transcendentalist philosopher expounds upon one of his central themes that all individuals need to refrain from conformity and follow instead their own thoughts and instincts:
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
A prominent Transcendentalist colleague of Emerson, who made a point to seek out the “perfect sweetness” of solitude is Henry David Thoreau. His life and work emphasized another aspect of self-reliance—that of simplicity and self-sufficiency. Thoreau advocated choosing a simple lifestyle that freed one from the temptations of materialism. Self-sufficiency advocates extol a sort of self-reliance that does not require any outside support for survival and, as in the case of some modern survivalists, can even encourage the avoidance of any “outside” interactions. Self-sufficiency is more often associated with sustainable living in which as little as possible is consumed outside of what is produced by self-sufficient individuals. Strategies for self-sufficiency include sustainable agriculture and permaculture as well as renewable energy.
This sort of take on self-sufficiency can be as simple as growing one’s one food but it also includes such attempts as voluntary simplicity, Luddism, homesteading, and the back-to-the-land movement. Of course, when we consider the issue of self-reliance and self-sufficiency we can’t really rely entirely upon ourselves, even if we consider ourselves as the sum of our parts—as a species. Beyond ourselves is that which we are all part of…and we can’t divorce ourselves from it—we are a unified and interwoven component of our biosphere—the immense, lovely and elaborate web of life. Even the most seemingly divorced from the environment—conservative republicans in America, for example, or oil company executives are acknowledging the significance of the biosphere now. This is not surprising considering a growing movement of adults raised on more than a half century of books by Dr. Helen Caldicott, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and Barry Commoner.
What one can’t help but wonder now in consideration of self-reliance in the context of the biosphere is where do we go from here?
Self-reliance tends to emphasize individualism but self-restraint does not easily emerge from that. This is an aspect of the “shadow side” of the virtue which I will discuss later. Right now, the earth is so very threatened that an unrestricted approach to individual self-reliance is less desirable. Rather, what a self-reliant individual needs to consider is how to encourage collective self-restraint and mutual cooperative reliance if we wish to see a healthy planet or a reasonable life for our descendents. A fictional utopian approach to this topic can be found in Ecotopia, a 1975 novel penned by Ernest Callenbach. What is surprising about this novel is that as you read you realize that much of what the author describes is actually quite feasible and in many cases, it makes much more sense than some of the destructive and unthinking choices made by nations around the world. The book is set in a (future) 1999 and consists of the diary entries and reports of an initially unsympathetic William Weston, a reporter who is the first American to investigate Ecotopia, a country that seceded from the USA in 1980. This country consists of the territory of the former states of Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. The book combines diary entries with reports sent back to his newspaper. Through this means we “ride along” with Weston as he learns that in Ecotopia, Nature is radically placed at the center of all decision making. The impact upon education, energy production, culture, agriculture, sexual freedom, gender interactions and politics are striking as Ecotopia has dramatically embraced Barry Commoner’s point that: “In nature, no organic substance is synthesized unless there is provision for its degradation; recycling is enforced.”
As a result of this, in Ecotopia everything is recycled and what cannot be, replaced, and renewed is done without. While Ecotopian citizens are clearly self-reliant, creative “free-thinkers” they are also cooperative and socially responsible. At the end of the novel Weston becomes an Ecotopian.
While we here in the various nations of the Fantasy Continent are engaged in a playful Mythopoeic approach to virtual life, it is important to remember that both the Elf and the Faery are creatures who reverence and interact very closely with Nature. So perhaps it is not so much of a stretch for me to expand in this way upon self-reliance in the context of ecology.
In that context Dr. Commoner’s four laws are of interest so I include them in this discussion. They are:
1. Everything is Connected to Everything Else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
2. Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no "waste" in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
3. Nature Knows Best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is “likely to be detrimental to that system.”
4. There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Everything comes from something. There no such things as spontaneous existence.
Turning from the more political and social approach to self-reliance in Nature, I want to touch upon the relationship between self-reliance and fertility. It is unfortunate that today many view the virtue of fertility only as reproductive capacity while we wrestle with the challenges of overpopulation. Throughout these lectures I have drawn upon Celtic takes on the virtues because of the Celtic significance to both Elf and Faery. Modern Celts do not heavily emphasize “self-reliance” in their collective version of virtues which overlaps and is similar to the Norse 9 Noble Virtues. For example: The ADF (a Neo-Druid group) lists 9 virtues of wisdom, piety, vision, courage, integrity, perseverance, hospitality, moderation and fertility.
The Celts do certainly emphasize that last virtue of fertility! Taken broadly, fertility encompasses not just the key role of its agricultural aspects, but also artistic, literary, poetic and musical creativity, inspiration, and the nurturing and growth of the intellect, the body and the spirit. These are clearly factors in successful self-reliance. A self-reliant person draws upon fertility to participate in and celebrate life, community and Nature. To the Celt, the fertility festival of Bealtainne (or Beltane, or however you wish to spell it) serves as a reminder of how we participate in the greater cycle of the fertility of Nature and the Earth. At Beltane (May 1) fertility is celebrated in its agricultural sense, as it takes place at the time when the light is increasing in strength, the soil is warming from Spring, and the first plantings are just beginning to push up shoots from the earth. In the Modern Outworld and here in pixels we participate in our own fertility when we explore creative, fun and worthwhile activities, when we awaken ourselves with beneficial educational undertakings—when we nurture our sacred or divine ways and nourish our spirits.
A self-reliant person can encourage his/her own fertility by exercising and eating fresh healthy foods, pursuing a deeper relationship with Nature and the environment, and building strong and meaningful relationships. At the same time, when considering self-reliance, it can certainly be argued that many individuals in modern society have become too dependent upon others. The Blanche DuBois quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire” comes to mind: “I always rely on the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche is an excellent example to consider in a discussion of self-reliance. She is a fading Southern belle whose pretensions to virtue fail to hide her self-delusion and alcoholism. She floats about the set of the play (and film) in a perfumed and tattered cloud of illusion with which she seeks to mislead others and hide from herself her actual reality and situation while attempting to remain still attractive to a new potential mate. Self-reliance requires not just knowing oneself but also taking responsibility for one’s life. A self-reliant person refuses to blame personal failures upon life’s hardships, an unfair system, god, religious intolerance, “the patriarchy” or the government. In cases where “the system” may be unfair, a self-reliant person is responsible for doing something about that. To be truly self-reliant requires self trust as well as self knowledge.
Emerson also wrote:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”
When we consider how we independently take responsibility for our virtues and our actions in this context of self-reliance the related concept of autonomy comes up. Autonomy comes from the Greek “autonomos” (a?t???µ??). “Auto” translates as “self” and “nomos” means “law”. Roughly, it refers to the right to self-government. It is also a model found in political, moral and bioethical philosophy. In these contexts autonomy is seen as the determinant of moral responsibility for one’s actions, as it refers to the ability of a rational person to make an informed (and un-coerced) choice. Finding the balance between autonomy and dependence is one of the challenges facing any exploration of self-reliance.
I have made a point of exploring some of the shadow aspects of the 9 Virtues and this is where we will now turn. Since Emerson is so associated with the concept of self-reliance, let’s consider another quote of his:
“Most of the shadows of life are caused by standing in our own sunshine.”
As I have said, self-reliance is naturally associated with individualism. The danger there is in becoming alienated, self-absorbed, narcissistic, selfish, and untrusting. A self-reliant person must engage in a sense in some “interior design”. A motivational speaker and interior designer by the name of Kate Halverson has said that: “If you are all wrapped up in yourself, you are overdressed.”
While researching this material, I came across a really great “recipe” for perfect misery which elucidates many of the major shadow aspects of self-reliance. The recipe was attributed to “The Gospel Herald” who says the recipe is “guaranteed to be infallible”. There are 20 “ingredients” and I include the recipe here:
HOW TO BE PERFECTLY MISERABLE.
1. Think about yourself.
2. Talk about yourself.
3. Use "I" as often as possible.
4. Mirror yourself continually in the opinion of others.
5. Listen greedily to what people say about you.
6. Expect to be appreciated.
7. Be suspicious.
8. Be jealous and envious.
9. Be sensitive to slights.
10. Never forgive a criticism.
11. Trust no one but yourself.
12. Insist on consideration and respect.
13. Demand agreement with your own views on everything.
14. Sulk if people are not grateful to you for favors shown them.
15. Never forget a service you may have rendered.
16. Be on the lookout for a good time for yourself.
17. Shirk your duties if you can.
18. Do as little as possible for others.
19. Love yourself supremely.
20. Be selfish.
Many of these “ingredients” are perfect examples of the ways in which self-reliance can “turn ugly”.
Another way in which the shadow of self-reliance can manifest is when, under the guise of “self-help”, one relies instead upon less than trustworthy external sources of guidance. It is easy to give too much credit to the moral “expert”. Traditionally, moralists urged obedience and submission to authority. Emerson preached quite the opposite:
Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor moving wherever moves a man; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things.
So how do we rely upon ourselves and remain open to external input that can help us grow? How do we do that and simultaneously avoid the reams of bunk motivational material? How do we keep ourselves from taking ourselves too seriously? Ethel Barrymore said “You grow up the day you have your first real laugh - at yourself.”
And yet, that too can be taken too far, while we pursue self-reliance we also risk becoming too hard on ourselves. From that position of vulnerability we tend to look for some sort of external perspective of comparison or guidance and are met then with a flood of cultural material designed to make us feel bad about ourselves in order to sell us something. Many modern creatures of the Outworld are bombarded daily with materials in literature, on TV, or on the web that tell us what is wrong with us. We aren’t getting enough exercise, we are not as skinny as our avatars, we need to whiten our teeth, redo our hair, we need to read a guidebook on how to be better lovers, we need to compare our symptoms with various diagnostic criteria to determine what syndrome we may have. It seems that we can’t even decide how to dress or pick our own paint and wallpaper, so we watch “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” or “What Not to Wear” or “While You Were Out”. In doing so, we are not only giving up our own self-reliance, but our friends, loved ones, or coworkers are offering us up for public ridicule so whole nations can tune in to laugh at our lack of taste and our disgrace. Eleanor Roosevelt said that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Still, it is quite possible to be worn down by the perpetual onslaught of critical value judgments. When we are flooded with choices and information, we can get overwhelmed and feel inadequate. When we try to extract ourselves from this sensation we feel even worse as we now see ourselves as at fault when we can’t keep up and believe there’s something wrong with us that keeps us from “coping”. We struggle to be “something” externally defined so we make our “to-do lists”, we run to keep up, we try to simplify, we join gyms, we diet and meditate, we run or try yoga, we buy plant supplements and in general we attempt in desperation to make “something” of ourselves. Coco Chanel (lol) said:
“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something, but to be someone.”
So how do we self-reliantly address this mess? At the heart of this, in addition to self-knowledge is the need for self-trust. If we don’t trust in our capacity to meet life as it comes we become stressed, frightened and worried. Alternatively, we might try to get control by taking too much on, by failing to set boundaries, by becoming perfectionists, and avoiding our feelings (which we don’t trust) by distracting ourselves with as much business as possible. We become buried in our problems and our diagnoses and can recite the catechism and litany of our faults: “I procrastinate”, “I have low self esteem”, “My BMI is too high”, “I am obsessive”, etc. We lose the awareness that *WE* are reliable sources of the wisdom we need to guide our own way.
To be self-reliant we must take a risk and trust ourselves. We must remember that we are the miraculous product of an amazing birthright. We are each fantastically unique and we each bear a stunning and sophisticated electro-chemical structure capable of processing and returning feedback (our brains and nervous systems). We are each also endowed with genetic intelligence and stellar qualities and attributes from which we can draw. We are naturally built to work right. And we can trust that and therefore ourselves. The virtue of self-trust, like all the other virtues we have been exploring in these lectures emerges from the self knowledge mentioned earlier in tandem with self-acceptance and the willingness to utilize these gifts to get what we want without worrying about external approval. Self trust just needs a bit of exercise. With a bit of exercise we can get to the place where we see the importance of adding “Love Thyself” to the equation of self-reliance.
Returning for a moment to the shadow sides of the virtue of self-reliance, there is the danger that we can be narcissistic and wallow in superficial self-esteem, but true self love is not about that. It isn’t about parading around in self-congratulation about “how great I am”. It is about allowing ourselves to build our self-regard upon the foundation of the awareness of our strengths and weaknesses that emerges from the Delphic precept: “Know Thyself”. As we develop our understanding of our unique abilities and learn to draw upon them we will grow more trusting of our abilities and less overwhelmed, regardless of external pressures. As external economies falter, as the world appears to accelerate or seem ever more ambiguous and unstable, the self-reliant goal is to trust our instinctive abilities to be adaptive, flexible and strong at our very cores. When the world tells us we are “not enough” we remind ourselves of our fertility and we cultivate the heart and mind we have come to know. We develop self-confidence.
Now, confidence is yet another place where the shadow side of self-reliance can arise. We need to remember that confidence is often seen as the state of certainty, the belief that what we know is right, that what we choose to do is best. Confidence can easily become arrogance, presumption, overconfidence. The difference is in determining whether confidence is merited. One way is simply by exploring the outcomes of our actions. The key to confident self-reliance then is a willingness to accept the consequences of what we do and learn from them. When we don’t, our self-reliance easily turns to self-pity. Maya Angelou said that: “Self-pity in its early stages is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable.”
It is up to us to remain gently vigilant, to remain aware that self-reliance is not an end result, but an ongoing process. Last time, I took us on a detour to address an interesting question that has arisen regarding the focus here in the Sidhevairs upon the mythic and historical underpinnings of the virtues rather than an approach that offers concrete suggestions on how to realize and live the virtues here in our Second Lives. Despite the presence of a number of wonderful and apt quotes here, basically, my hope is that my listeners (or readers) here draw upon this exploration of each virtue as a fertile source… (ok…no jokes about fertilizer, as a self aware person I realize I can at times be full of it) ...from which you can each form your own self-reliant conclusions as to how to behave in whatever world you wander. Benjamin Franklin suggested: “Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.” Basically, it is up to us, as self-reliant individuals, to determine what we want to do with the information we come upon.
For much of this talk, I have been focusing upon the importance of clear, honest scrutiny of what is, what we know of ourselves, what we trust in ourselves. If ever there was a virtue that required logic, clarity, and a focus upon reality it is this virtue of self-reliance. Bill Purdin wrote: “One of the secrets of life is to be honestly who you are. Who others want you to be, who you used to be, and who you may some day become ... these are fantasies. To be honestly who you are is to give up your illusions and face today with courage.” Consider the importance of this call to put aside illusions, what is the role of fantasy in consideration of the virtue of self-reliance? The Virtues we have been discussing are, in essence, the goals of a Quest. Fantasy, ironically by its very portrayal of wildly other worlds, is about such quests. Fantasy is deeply “about” reality. As we pass beneath the Lintel above the pronaos of Fantasy, there too we can find the golden inscription, “Know Thyself”.
“Speak ‘Friend’ and Enter."
As we set aside what we see as mundane truth, we step into a world where we embrace the magic of the fantastic and in doing so, we learn to perceive the magic that shines in our worlds of origin and most importantly we begin to realize how these epic and fantastic stories that touch upon all the virtues help us learn more about these qualities in ourselves. C. G. Jung saw that the dynamic motifs, or “archetypes” to be found in myth and faery tales as expressions of our collective unconscious can be seen to reflect individual development. There are a number of essential characteristics and archetypal motifs to be found in good fantasy. A significant one involves either a rite of passage or a coming of age experience for the main character. In this meme the characters we come to identify with discover the strengths and talents that lie within them and utilize these to accept their important role in resolving whatever challenges they face. This is the essence of self-reliance.
It is not surprising that J. K. Rowling’s tales of Harry Potter draw upon such themes. Harry faces lesser and greater evils and succeeds with will and self-reliance in much the same way that the author pulled herself out of poverty. Harry Potter’s tales, just like so many mythic stories before them, draw upon the same sources of inspiration and life that have quenched the thirsts of many writers before Rowling. These tales of self-reliance ultimately rise above “fantasy”—they become real. This is Mythopoeia. Other examples of this include Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus (in Latin Ulysses) continuously matches wits with a variety of challenges and through his self-reliance eventually makes it home to his wife, his son, and his kingdom. T. H. White’s King Arthur is not merely King because he reveals he is the rightful heir by pulling a sword from a stone. It is how he absorbs the lessons he learns from Merlin that allow him to develop the self-reliance that makes that extraction possible.
Star Wars’ Obi-Wan and Harry Potter’s Head Master Dumbledore both similarly assist their charges in developing self-reliance. Dumbledore says: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Dr. Seuss advises: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.” Basically, heroic fantasy gives the reader hope. No matter how fantastic the scenarios, and how painful the road, it is eventually through self-reliance that the heroes in these tales not only triumph but also pass their insights and strengths along to the reader who has accompanied them on their quests. Turning again to Thoreau, he also wrote that: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
But it is not just our heroes, and our dreams that are illuminated in fantasy. We also learn from ways in which the shadows of the virtues are portrayed. A fantastic example of this is portrayed by Gollum/ Sméagol in the Lord of the Rings. The recent film versions do a fantastic job of illuminating this. Let’s take the current virtue we have been looking at for example.
Gollum/ Sméagol can be seen as truly split between his desire for absolute self-reliance and connection with others. For hundreds of years Gollum was isolated, miserable and alone in dark caves surviving basically upon his own ability to manipulate (trick solitary orcs) and to hunt and fish, and is absorbed in his obsessive contemplation of the Ring. Most of his contacts with others have (at least from his point of view) involved either being robbed of his precious Ring (by Bilbo) or tortured for information about it by Sauron. Even while bound with a painful Elvish rope and dragged towards the Dead Marshes to Cirith Ungol he is ultimately forced into making a connection with others. Importantly, when Frodo shows Gollum kindness Sméagol percolates back into consciousness. This struggle in Gollum/ Sméagol is not of course, simply about self-reliance. It does however dramatically reveal through the insane debates, dialogs and internal conflicts between these two characters an insight into our own conversations and battles that we often do not face within our own hearts and minds.
In the Anatomy of the Psyche, Edward Edinger wrote: “Psychologically, the result of separation by division into two is awareness of the opposites. This is a crucial feature of emerging consciousness....To the extent that the opposites remain unconscious and unseparated, one lives in a state of participation mystique, which means that one identifies with one side of a pair of opposites and projects its contrary as an enemy. Space for consciousness to exist appears between the opposites, which means that one becomes conscious as one is able to contain and endure the opposites within.”
So it is then, that fantasy does not just give us heroes to emulate, but dark mirrors to consider. Aldous Huxley remarked that “A totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane.” Another gift of fantasy that also touches upon efforts to balance the forces of good and evil can be found in the stories of Harry Potter. The struggle and connection between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort provide an additional look at this dark mirror of similar opposites. From the very first installment we see that both Harry and Potter share Muggle backgrounds, were alienated orphans, speak the language of snakes, and have wands with tail feathers of a phoenix. In his exploration of the function of archetypes, Jung found that when an archetype is activated in a group’s psyche, their folktales, myths and stories will reflect that energy. I discussed previously the impact of the failure of self-restraint through technological abuses upon the biosphere. There is a concomitant impact upon the psyche which can be seen to result in alienation and a fading expression of the spirit. What Harry Potter models for our current collective psyche is the ability to survive and navigate in two worlds. This may be of significance to those of us who attempt this simultaneously in the Outworld (some call “RL”) and our second lives. As Harry Potter develops his self-reliance he develops both magical and spiritual talents which help him to overcome steep and frightening odds. This, I believe is a timely motif for children coming of age in a time of dramatic ecological and social challenges.
In his recent inauguration speech Barak Obama said: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
Before I close, I want to touch briefly upon one last self-reliant fantasy character. For women, the history of self-reliance can be seen as abbreviated as until recently many cultures did not even consider this a virtue in women. In fact, some still do not. Female dependence has been seen as religiously or biologically ordained. This has begun to change but sexual and racial subordination have both proved to be subtle and tenacious legacies. Into this context steps Hermione Granger. She too, can be seen to be both an outsider, and a creature of mixed and muggle ancestry. There are elements of racial and ethnic cleansing issues in the Potter stories. To address these concerns Hermione tends to overcompensate by constant study and achievement. In so doing, and in her loyal friendship to Harry, Hermione reveals her strength, intelligence, integrity and ...self-reliance.
The 9 Virtues
The eighth virtue