Photo of a man silhouetted in front of a mall in Bangkok, Thailand by Humanitarian Photographer Bryon Lippincott

I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. Farming is not a lucrative profession. Especially during my childhood farming was incredibly difficult. Prices for corn and soybeans were devastatingly low, which made living on the income from our small farm incredibly difficult. We did everything we possibly could ourselves; home repairs, car maintenance, repairs to machinery, and canning and freezing food from our garden. In short, we learned to be self-reliant. We learned how to solve problems, to teach ourselves new skills, and have confidence that we could make it work.

Looking back I can see that good trait of self-reliance I learned as a child, and I can see where that idea began to grow into something more dangerous. 

I learned the narrative of superiority based on self-reliance from the conservative culture that I grew up in. Over time it began to influence how I viewed those around me who were not successful or were not able to accomplish what I thought they should be able to.

I began to believe in the conservative narrative that people who need government assistance were abusing the system. That they were having babies to increase their welfare income or were able to work but chose not to because welfare is easier. I believed that because I didn’t need help, and this allowed me to feel superior.

I believe this is the myth of self-redemption. I’m not talking about religious redemption but the idolization of the American ideal of self-reliance and how it informs the way we see and hear the oppressed and marginalized in our society. Self-redemption is a deep, immersive belief that, through our own efforts, skills, and fortitude we were able to ‘save’ ourselves, and that in saving ourselves we have become superior to those who have not been able to. Self-reliance by itself is a healthy core value for American culture, it leads to innovation, builds businesses, and generates wealth. However, an unhealthy focus on self-reliance can become dangerous if it becomes the narcissistic illusion of self-redemption.

“Self-redemption is a deep, immersive belief that, through our own efforts, skills, and fortitude we were able to save ourselves, and that in saving ourselves we have become superior to those who have not been able to.”

Believing this myth allows us to overlook oppression. I succeeded, and if you can’t succeed then you’re just not good enough, or worthy enough to succeed. You’re not trying hard enough. You are making poor decisions. You’re not being responsible.

Moving overseas was the thing that finally changed my perspective. Physically removing myself from the conservative narrative that I had been living in slowly opened my eyes to the vast inequality of the narrative I had bought into. I began to see that my beliefs about people devalued them based on my interpretation of their success or failure. I automatically attributed their lack of success or their need for assistance to personal failure. I didn’t have room in my narrative for the idea that people might end up in difficult situations because of a lack of opportunity, systemic racism, injustice, or other circumstances.

While it may be true in limited cases that people aren’t willing to work hard, are making poor decisions, or are not being responsible, these statements can be lies we tell ourselves to absolve us of our responsibility to care for our fellow human beings and assuage our guilt. These statements rob us of the opportunity to live with empathy and recognize that others may not have access to the same tools we had to succeed.

The factors that contribute to success are complex and cannot be calculated. If we are honest with ourselves, none of us can look back and say that we alone are the architects and instruments of our success. No matter our level of success we were each aided in ways that we can never fully know by people around us, government programs, and by factors out of our control. As time passes and we are further from the events that shaped our success, it is easy to forget or overlook the things that have helped us get to the point where we are. I learned many of the skills of self-reliance from my father growing up. If I had grown up without a father, I don’t know if I would have been able to develop those skills.

These idolized ideas of self-reliance allowed me to overlook the fact that glorification of work ethic allowed me to excuse the issues of systemic racism as differences in effort, motivation, and attitude. It also allowed me to make exception for people I knew that I could personally vouch for.

Layering an over-inflated sense of self-reliance on a system of racism can place a further burden on people of color who are affected by the injustices of the system. To deny inequality, racism, and oppression, and demand that every person plot their own escape from its grip using good decisions, hard work, and responsibility, is ignorant and cruel. I am trying to separate myself from these thoughts and beliefs that devalue the experience of other people, to realize that my perspective has been flawed from the beginning and quite frankly is not mine alone. It is a narrative that I was fed by structures of power through my community from a young age with the goal of influencing my worldview and encouraging me to embrace a conservative world view that would support the current system of political power structures.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a country we can choose different priorities, we can choose mercy and compassion over pride and self-reliance.

For change to happen we first have to admit that there is a problem. We have to be ok with acknowledging our system is imperfect and the fact that the system is imperfect, partially corrupt, and built on white supremacy, is not an indictment of us personally. We can acknowledge that the system was designed to oppress and without taking responsibility for personally designing the system.

We, as a country, can choose to recognize that equal opportunity and equal rights are still an illusion to a significant portion of our population. Because of this, we can choose to invest our resources in equality. We can provide equal access to basic services like health care, education, and fair policing. We can put an end to the militarization of the police, mass incarceration, and to regulatory and economic policies that favor corporations that mistreat and devalue the poor and working class.

We can uphold the value of self-reliance while choosing to reject the myth of self-redemption and acknowledge that our system is rigged to favor the few. We can change how we think about people. We can choose to accept that our experience and our path to success is not available to everyone. We can acknowledge historical injustice and our country’s actions that have harmed and are harming millions of people.

As a country, we like to believe that our success as a nation is built on self-reliance and the American spirit, but that too is a myth. Our country is built on injustice, stolen lands, broken treaties, slave labor, and political marginalization.

As the US is wrestling with it’s historical and current racial injustice, it is more important than ever to examine inner narratives, the stories we believe about ourselves and our country, and the stories we tell ourselves about the people around us. How do the stories we believe about others differ from their experiences? How does our remembrance and interpretation of history differ from their experience and interpretation?

I am only beginning to understand the privilege that I was born with and the narratives I have culturally inherited that shape how I see myself and how I see the people around me. I find myself trusting my learned cultural narrative less and less because I can now see the dangers of it, who benefits from it and who is denigrated by it. The self-redemption narrative is always in the back of my mind, it is human nature, I doubt that I will ever be rid of it, but I can acknowledge its presence and actively work to counter that narrative by listening to the experiences of people whose experience is different from mine, not discounting their experiences and feelings because they don’t match my own.