Though I am still researching what I believe self-reliance to include, there is one thing I am certain it is not: complete independence of all other human beings. I will never advocate that anyone become a hermit or a nomad. That would be missing the point. Self-reliance is not to live so that you need nothing from anyone else.
One of the great human developments has been specialization. The ability for a person to increase their skill in one area at the expense of many other potential skills raised productivity considerably. The become completely independent of anyone else would be a step backward, both productively and socially.
Indeed, Thoreau’s experiment in simple living came at a cost. He had no one out there living with him on Walden Pond, no one dependent on him for survival. He had no wife, no children. As a husband and a father I have to declare that if “enlightenment” depends on remaining single and childless, then I don’t particularly care for any, thank you. In fact, I would argue that one cannot become completely enlightened and miss out on the opportunity to share one’s life with another human being at the level of intimacy a family affords.
That a family could still live the Walden lifestyle and be both healthy and happy I do not dispute. But Thoreau would have had to devote much more time to sustaining life than he had to when it was just him. He would have had much less time to devote to mediation and philosophizing. Yet I think he would still have found wisdom and enlightenment in the selfless endeavor of sacrificing for one’s family.
But my point is this: self-reliance is to be able to minimize the degree to which you must intrude on others for support. It is not to never need anyone else. If a person becomes sufficiently skilled in a trade or craft to be able to provide himself and his family the essentials of life, even if he must sell or trade his labor to another in order to do so, he is self-sufficient in that area. He need not know how, on top of everything else, to birth a calf so long as he has a skill that he can market to a rancher or farmer in exchange for meat.
A person need not be so emotionally independent that he never need take a problem to a friend. Rather they just need to have the emotional maturity to recognize good advice from a friend and know how to take it to heart. No one need be some socially self-reliant that their own company is all they ever need. They just need to know how to get along well with others to the point that they never lack for companionship and interaction when they need it.
It if fortunate for all of us that true self-reliance does not require that we go put ourselves to the test by living by ourselves from the solitary industry of our own hands for several years. For most of us, that would either put self-reliance out of reach, or require us to seriously damage the relationships that sustain us while we push others out of our life for a period of time.
No, true self-reliance is much more connected–and hence rewarding. It is being an active, engaged member of a larger world while at the same time asking no more of it than is fair and reasonable. No Walden Ponds required.