Everyone is familiar with the concept of the ‘self-made’ person – the man or woman who pulls themselves up by the bootstraps – (usually) from poverty – and (usually) makes a great deal of money. This person is lauded and admired and held up as a example to all of us of how we can succeed in the world in spite of humble beginnings.
But there is a much more powerful way to understand the concept of being ‘self made’.
A way that isn’t as widely recognised but which is much more important for our well-being than mere financial success.
We can come to see that we are truly the creators of ourselves – because…
If we act with kindness – we become kind people.
If we act with generosity – we become generous people.
If we act in a courageous fashion – we become brave people.
And so on.
These actions of ours are what confer our real identities on us.
Not the circumstances of our birth.
Not whether or not we were lucky or unlucky in the ‘decent parents’ and ‘enough to eat’ lotteries.
Not our gender or race or how wealthy or educated or lucky or even beloved we were in our early lives.
Not our unemployment or accomplishment or even our successes.
I am not underestimating the difficulties of overcoming abuse or grinding poverty or neglect or abandonment or grief or the myriad other things that cause us suffering. All the pain in the world is real and it all deserves to be acknowledged and alleviated if at all possible – it just doesn’t get to define us.
This may seem like a small point but I feel it is of vital importance in a world where when we’ve been victims we are afraid to say we have suffered, because we are frightened to be labelled as broken in some important way that makes us less valuable or capable or wise.
We are afraid that we are tainted by our suffering when, in fact, suffering has the capacity to make us stronger – like tempered steel – and more valuable, capable or wise than those who have suffered less.
Or, as Khalil Gibran puts it,
Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.
Refusing to be created and defined by our suffering gives us back our power. The more we learn to feel pride – and shame – for our own actions, the less we feel ashamed of what may have befallen us in our lives.
And it’s not all about ourselves. If we saw that we ourselves are the sum total of our own deeds and not a misshapen creation of our victimisations, then we’d be able to see others in the same way.
If that happened, social stigma as a result of rape, poverty, abuse, disability etc, would evaporate like a mist and, while the pain of the ‘suffering’ would still exist, at least it wouldn’t be complicated by undeserved shame.
We may not always have a say as to how we suffer but we do have a say in how we see it.
So, in the spirit of real self-sufficiency, let’s try to be the magnificent, scarred, battle-weary, tempered, self-made people we were always meant to be…
The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. (1)
Picture: UNICEF/Rokiatou Guindo
(1) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, pp 178-9