Thursday, November 26, 2015

How to Become Self-Reliant?--George's Post

1.    How does one become self-reliant?

Far more important than a technical definition of “self-reliance” is the question “how does one become self-reliant?”[1]   Accordingly, all discussions of “self-reliance” quickly become discussions of “how to.”     Sister Julie B. Beck cites the following as keys to becoming “self-reliant:”   “We become self-reliant through obtaining sufficient knowledge, education and literacy; by managing money and resources wisely, being spiritually strong, preparing for emergencies and eventualities; and by having physical health and social and emotional well-being.”[2]  The list is illustrative, and likely was not intended to be read as a exhaustive list of factors.  Below are the principles behind this, and similar, lists of the specific steps to be taken to gain self-reliance:

(a)  “Use Available Existing Resources:”   Self-reliance should always begin, using the resources, internal and external, currently at hand, to allow us to satisfy basic needs and to find answers to our problems.

Sister Beck makes this point by saying that self-reliance starts with “using all of our blessings from Heaven Father.”   These blessings can be described in different ways.   They can be itemized as skills, talents, aptitudes, experience, degrees, certificates, diplomas, awards, honors, traits, money, investments, savings, etc.”    Above I choose to categorize them as either “internal” or “external” resources—depending upon whether they relate to the characteristics of “people”—aptitudes, skills, traits, education, training, and experience (together with external evidences of such skills—such as certificates, diplomas, degrees, job experience, and resume type material) (collectively, “internal sources”)—or to things that people use to provide for their basic needs—real property (land), personal property, tangible and intangible property, money, investments, etc. (collectively, the “external resources”).     Some may find that distinction useful, others not, but it doesn’t matter much how we choose to classify the resources at hand.   What matters is that they are “resources” to which we have access and which we use first to address our basic needs, before turning to others for help.     One of the key internal resources is that of “personal initiative.”   Self-help, which is used to establish “self-reliance,” requires that such personal initiative be employed to take advantage of the available resources.    It is not helpful to envy others for the resources they have, but which are not at our disposal, nor to complain about our lack of resources.    Moreover, the pool of available resources at our disposal changes with time, as our talents are enhanced and as we gain greater access to material possessions.   With question, one of the most important tools is the ability to be creative and to adapt, through problem solving, to the conditions around us; it is precisely that skill that has allowed mankind to gain dominion over all things.[3]

(b)  “Make Investments in Ourselves and Our Children.”  We should be prepared to invest in ourselves and our children.   Like all investments, this invariably requires current sacrifices of time and resources in order to develop greater resources in the future, further asking of us to take the long, and not short, view of what is going to be “valuable” to us and our families.

Getting an education or obtaining specialized training are clear examples of “investing” in ourselves.   Completing the requirements to obtain technical certificates, diplomas, and degrees requires not only the payment of school fees, but also much hard work and discipline.    Some of society’s most valued professions and careers are accessible only after years of dedicated schooling.    It requires one to sacrifice now in the hope of greater rewards in the future.    The skill sets acquired, without question, open up opportunities for work or income that otherwise would be closed to us.   Many have trouble seeing the benefits of such sacrifices or lack the personal discipline to make the sacrifices.   One must be able to take a long view of one’s life, making sacrifices now, and deferring current pleasures, in favor of greater rewards in the future.      It further requires having or developing a vision of where one wants to go.  Often such a vision is obtained by watching what others have done, who are self-reliant and who have made a success of their lives.

(c)   “Saving External Resources:”   Saving money or other external resources is critical to self-reliance.

The saving of money or stockpiling of other external resources is designed to achieve one or several of the following objectives, each an appropriate aim for those desiring to be self-reliant: (i) to serve as a hedge against future uncertainties, so that to allow one to carry on despite unexpected setbacks in the future; in this sense, saving is a type of “insurance;”[4] (ii) to be used to cover a portion or all of the purchase price of some item one wishes to obtain; savings for this purpose reduces or eliminates the need for consumer debt, and represents an act of personal discipline, contrasted with the immediate self-gratification that comes with many debt-financed purchases; and (iii) to prepare for the time when one expects to need the funds in order to permit one to retire or to take time off from work.   The latter case is not one of “insurance” (one is not hedging against the risks of a possible unwanted event), but instead represents an act of proactive planning to deal with an expected, and desired, change in life circumstances.    One plans to continue saving until the pool of savings, together with income or increase thereon, is sufficient to allow one to quit working, and yet to continue living, at the desired level of comfort, until death.  
The key to a successful savings program is to “save something” each month, month in and month out, treating the savings just like another other “required” payment.   With time, and assuming proper investment, the savings together with interest can be substantial.
Examples of such savings include food storage; participation in pre-retirement savings programs; setting aside money in various forms of investment to serve as a hedge against the risks of unwanted events; purchasing insurance policies to hedge against certain risks or contingencies—whole life or term life insurance, as well as casualty and liability insurance, are some of the most-commonly recognized types of insurance products; and, depositing money into saving or checking accounts, or other similar liquid investments, for the purpose of funding later desired purchases.   It also includes holding back bags of maize to fund the purchase of next year’s seeds and fertilizers.   
Is it possible for the poor to save?   Mistakenly, one might assume this is not feasible, because the poor need every last dollar to make a go of it.    Such an approach virtually guarantees that the poor will remain as they are—poor.   One of the critical factors in breaking the cycle of poverty is provident savings.

(d)  “Avoiding Unnecessary Debt; and Managing Carefully the Debt Incurred:”   In order to avoid become a slave to debt, people should avoid incurring unnecessary debt, and should never incur debts that they do not expect to be able to repay.  

As a general principle, we should avoid, if possible, the incurrence of debt.  Debt is an unforgiving task master, requiring its due—in the form of principal and interest payments--on a regular basis, whatever our circumstances may be.   The Church recognizes, however, that certain capital intensive items, such as homes and income-producing business assets, and that education and training, are only within the reach of most if some debt is incurred.   But even in those situations, we are expected to use prudence, and not to overextend ourselves.   This means that we should not purchase more “house” than is really needed or incur school fees to attend expensive schools without a reasonable belief that the additional school costs can be cost justified over time.    Moreover, debt should never be incurred unless, at the time the debt is incurred, we can see how our future circumstances will permit its repayment, and we are “personally” committed to honoring our obligation to repay.   Malawi is, as I have mentioned before, a cash-based society.   Many of the purchases, which are debt financed in the United States, are made in Malawi only if one has the “cash in hand” when the purchase is made.[5]  Hence, Malawians do not have the high levels of consumer debt that are so dangerous in the United States.

(e)   “Living within Our Means:”   Self-reliance, almost by definition, requires that we control our monthly spending so that our expenses do not expect our monthly incomes.[6].     

Frequently one hears that self-reliance is not about “money,” but instead it is about self-control.   It doesn’t matter how much income one has—whether one is poor or rich—one is not self-reliant unless one manages the monthly expenses to be less than the monthly income.   Sooner or later, if families spend more than they have coming in as income, they will deplete available savings, incur unhealthy levels of debt, and finally find themselves insolvent and in need of financial aid from others.   There are two keys to living within our “means.”   First and foremost, families must manage their life styles so that their expected monthly expenses are less than projected income levels.   This requires planning, avoiding burdensome debt, deferring non-essential purchases, controlling one’s need for “things” and “toys.”   If family incomes fall below prior or historical levels, being self-reliant may require downsizing and a dramatic recalibration of expectations and spending levels.   Usually, husbands and wives, including children, must be on board to control expenses to bring them in line with expected cash inflow.  
Second, most of us need to plan carefully to monitor monthly cash inflows and cash outflows in order to ensure the proper balancing.   Such monitoring is best done with a written budget, usually prepared on an annual basis or as 12-month rolling budget, showing projected monthly income and expenses.   To be useful the budget must be updated frequently to take into account changes in the family’s fortune.   The budgeted expenses should include projected cash flow to pay tithing, cover required debt service payments, cover reasonable expenses, and set aside something for savings.   Only after those expenses have been paid, or provided for, should families use excess funds for non-essential purposes. 
One may fairly ask if these principles apply equally well in Malawi, when, for some families, much of the monthly inflow is not in the form of cash but in the form of the harvest of crops from local gardens or land in the family’s home villages.   For example, subsistence farming means that the family relies primarily upon local crop harvest to feed their families and to take care of basic needs.  The crops harvested are first used to feed the family, and the excess crop, if any, then sold or bartered for other goods the family needs.   Most subsistence farmers also try to supplement income by doing some piecework during the year; when such work will be available, and how much extra income it will generate, may be difficult to project.   Moreover, the income is not apt to be regular or predicable.   Certainly, these factors complicate the budgeting process, but do not vitiate the fundamental usefulness of budgeting.     
For example, assume a family of four needs 20 50 kg bags of maize to cover their basic nsima needs for 12 months, and assume the average market price over the year for a 50 kg bag of maize is 5,000 MKW.   Furthermore, assume that the family will harvest, at the home garden plot and/or in the family villages, 40 50 kg bags of maize.   This means that the family should have 20 extra 50 kg bags of maize, above and beyond what it should retain to feed the family.   At 5,000 MKW per bag, the family should have 100,000 MKW during the year to cover the costs of all non-maize expenses, including amounts set aside for savings and tithing.  Further assume that the family expects to generate an additional 40,000 MKW over the 12 month period through piecework jobs, but does not know when such piecemeal work will actually be available.  
Under these circumstances, the preparation of a useable budget is likely more difficult that it would be for someone in the United States with steady employment, receiving W-2 wages.  But, at the same time, the need for a budget may be even more pressing, since it will be harder to match up cash inflows with cash outfalls.   Careful planning (thinking about what the year really looks like) will be critical to avoid unpleasant surprises.   If nothing else, the cash inflows will be not even over the year, but instead will come in during the harvest, when the bulk of the family’s “income” is generated.   Families must carefully plan to amortize the value of such harvest over the remaining portion of the year (i.e., until the next harvest) so as to avoid running out of food.   An additional complexity is that the value of a bag of maize is not constant over the year.   Shortly after the harvest, maize prices are at their lowest level, say 4,000 MKW per bag, while shortly before the next harvest, when maize supplies are at their lowest levels of the year, the same bag may sell for 9,000 MKW.   Such fluctuations in per bag maize prices must be factored in to allow the family to schedule the best times to dispose of excess crop to generate cash for non-maize related expenses.   Such calculations may be difficult to make for those unaccustomed to planning and not comfortable with numbers.   There are no accountants or financial planners here to help them with their budgeting.

(f)   “The Significance of Healthy Living:”  Part of a provident life is taking care of our bodies and health to avoid “avoidable” problems.

Part of a provident life is taking care of our bodies and health, thereby avoiding many of the health-related issues that otherwise would sap our ability to care for ourselves.   No group is better suited to respond to a possible message about the life-long benefits of healthy living than Mormons, who, since almost the Church’s inception, have had the Word of Wisdom to guide them in caring for their health.   No one seriously contests the value of the Word of Wisdom in that it prohibits the use of alcohol and consumption of tobacco products.   The need for regular exercise, though not specifically addressed in the Word of Wisdom, has been heralded by modern-day prophets, and has, in recent years, become a popular cause in the United States and other Western countries.     Literally millions of Americans jog, bike, lift weights, and engage in regular sports activities, all in an effort to promote a healthier life style.  
Regular exercise and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco are not, by and large, serious problems in Malawi.   Missionaries do not find it difficult to get Malawians to commit to living the Word of Wisdom.   This is not, however, to say that Malawians do not have their fair share of health problems.   Those problems, however, arise more from the lack of clean potable water, inadequate sewage disposal systems, and limited diets, as well as the lack of access to qualified health professionals to address early-onset medical problems and to treat acute health issues later in life.

(g)  “Developing Sound Problem Solving Skills:”   Self-reliance is predicated upon individuals developing and using sound problem solving skills.

The sixth principle for developing self-reliance identified in “My Foundation: Principles, Skills, Habits” is problem solving.[7]    The ability to identify a problem, consider potential solutions, and select the best one for getting the desired result is a skill so essential to “self-reliance” as to be self-evident.   It is an essential element to agency and human life.  Those who lack this capacity are like young children, who will likely require help from loved one throughout their lives.   They will not be able to fend for themselves without others to guide them.  
All of us know people who struggle with problem solving.   Some struggle because they have trouble identify what matters—they have no vision of where they should be going or what is critical to getting there; some because it is difficult for them to conceptualize potential, or alternative, solutions to a problem—this requires an imaginative turn of mind; and, others because they are paralyzed when it comes to “making decisions.”   They lack confidence in their own judgment; they are accustomed to having others tell them what to do; they find uncertainty paralyzing, freezing them from selecting one alternative over another.   Rarely is there absolute certainty about what is the “right” or “best” or “optimal” choice, when it comes to making a living, earning money, selecting what school or program to attend.   We are given considerable latitude in these matters, and the Lord expects us to use our good judgment in deciding upon alternatives.  
This is not to say that the Lord wouldn’t answer prayers about the “correctness” of a choice or prompt us to stay clear of one alternatives if it is not right for us.   But we are certainly expected to go as far as we can to make decisions on our own, using our talents, and accessing available resources, before turning to the Lord for confirmation.   The Lord gave somewhat similar advice when admonishing Oliver Cowdery in the 9th Chapter of the Doctrine and Covenants, speaking to his inability to translate.   “Be patient, my son, for it is wisdom in me, and it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time.  Behold, the work which you are called to do is to write for my servant Joseph.   And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.   Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.  Behold, you have no understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.  But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.  But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.”[8]   I do not think it is much of a stretch to apply the same principle to decision making when it deals with primarily “temporal” decisions.[9]
Is there any reason to believe Malawians approach “problem solving” differently than those in the United States, for example?   This is a difficult question to get a handle on.   Normally one would think that problem solving skills would spread across a population as large and diverse as that in Malawian pretty much the same way as they would in the United States.   Some would be good at problem solving, other not so good, but the range of skills, as it spreads across the whole population, would be roughly comparable.   There are however two factors related to problem solving that may skew the statistics more than one might expect.  First, the Malawian educational system, at least at the primary and secondary levels, places far more emphasis upon memorization, and the recitation of facts, than is the case in the United States.   Consequently Malawians often have at hand facts and statistics that no one in the United States would know or, for that matter, would care about.  Dates would be an example.   The average Malawian member knows the date of his baptism, his mission departure and return dates, and the alike.    It is possible that this approach is at the expense of teaching students how to analyze independently problems and to arrive at conclusions.   Second, historically each of the tribes in Malawi was a highly stratified society—with chief, sub-chiefs, ministers, village headman, and the like.   Authority was centralized and the chain of command was clear.   The leaders make decisions, and tribe members follow.   Tribe members are not expected, nor were they encouraged, to think for themselves.    They were to carry out the decisions and directives of local leaders.   Such an authoritarian structure is not particularly conducive, or consistent with, a model where everyone is expected to think for himself and to take personal responsibility for his affairs.  

(h)  “Christian Based Self-Reliance:”   Faith in Christ and obedience to the basic principles of the gospel help one become and remain self-reliant.

Of course, many non-Christians embrace the benefits of self-reliance, following many of the principles discussed above.   And, in so doing, they are responsible members of their communities, feeling a keen obligation to care for themselves and their families.   They are as desirous of being independent and self-reliant as most of the members of the Church.   At the same time, the Church believes that acceptance of the gospel gives members additional motivation for becoming self-reliant.    At its core, self-reliance is about “taking control” over one’s life, even if the external conditions are working against one, and doing the right things for the right reasons.    Hence, it is possible to think of the master and service as both having equal control of what really matters in life—deciding to be a believer and making morally correct choices.   What comes with a testimony of the gospel is a similar spirit of “taking control.”   Spiritual self-reliance is thought of as being akin to temporal self-reliance.   Hence, getting right with God leads to becoming “self-reliant.”  Achieving such spiritual and temporal self-reliance is a process, and most of us need years to get to the desired ends.   It is likely that because of this that the Church introduces “exercise faith in Jesus Christ” as the first principle leading to spiritual and temporal self-reliance.[10]

[1] Most of us have a general sense of what it means to be “self-reliant,” whether or not we could define it with any precision.   If nothing else, it means or suggests being independent when providing for one’s own well-being.
[2] See supra, ___.
[3] See, for example, Psalms 8: 3-9.
[4] See the discussion of the patriarch Joseph’s stewardship under Pharaoh’s rule under “____________________.”
[5] See the discussion under “____________________.”
[6] For purposes of this discussion, our monthly income includes any amounts in the family’s savings fund that are to be released on a monthly basis to include within the month’s income.   Rarely are monthly income and expenses constant over a year, or for that matter, over any extended period of time.  Consequently, most families have to put money into savings, and then draw it out, from time to time to cover expenses that are not amortized equally over the year.   Examples would include semi-annual or annual property taxes or income tax payments and irregular debt service payments.
[7] See “My Foundation: Principles, Skills, Habits,” (2015), 14-15.
[8] D&C 9: 3-9
[9][9] The line between the spiritual and temporal is not bright, and does not exist in the Lord’s eyes.   “Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the chidren of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created.   Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself; and I gave unto him commandment, that no temporal commandment gave I unto him, for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neighter carnal nor sensual.”   D&C 29: 34-35.
[10] See “My Foundation: Principles, Skills and Habits,” (2015), 4-5.