About the Self-made Person Nonsense

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Day after day, I am hearing President Obama misquoted as having said, “You didn’t build that.” What he actually said told a truth so commonplace and obvious that it needs application to his argument in order to be meaningful at all. The application was to the truth that, as John Donne put it, no one is an island. What we may think are individual liberties are made possible and safeguarded by our living in a liberal democracy. Likewise what we may be foolish enough at times to regard as our own completely individual achievements.

A dentist wrote an irate letter to our local newspaper here in Lancaster County objecting to the president’s words as he misunderstood them. Indignantly, he contended that he had achieved his own success with no help from the government unless, of course, one wishes to count the roads on which his patients drive to his office. He apparently believes the only benefit he receives from living in America is the road system, and he seems to think also that he taught himself everything he knows, from scratch no less, and that he has created his own little world without support or cooperation from a community, the state of Pennsylvania, the nation, or the world. He has received, supposedly, no benefit from history, from those who came before us. I suppose he invented and developed dentistry himself, founded his own college and dental school, and set up his own economic system that enabled him to get started in practice.

The absurdity of the “self-made” person should be apparent to anyone who thinks about human life. But there’s no reason to rush to the opposite (almost as absurd) pole that would dismiss a person’s own initiative, effort, patience, and persistence as meaningless. President Obama didn’t tell me I didn’t work for whatever it is I have achieved. He simply reminded me of the obvious truth that I didn’t do it all by myself. I would add, then, that my life should not be lived just for myself, either. Like it or not, we are relational and communal creatures, and all our achievements come within relational and communal contexts. We depend upon the work and sacrifice of others in all matters of life.

Biblical faith goes further by insisting that all that is good in life comes to us from the grace of God and so should be received, no matter how hard we work for it, with much more thankfulness than pride. For example:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. [Deuteronomy 8:12-18 NRSV]

One good thing about the attitude of thankfulness, besides its honesty and consequent humility, is its willingness to share, to lend a hand, to work with others. If I am thankful, then I cannot live by the mantra, “I got mine; now you get yours.”

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