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May 26, 2016

Fight Your Own Battles

Do Not Wait For Leaders, Do It Alone Person To Person - Mother Teresa

A stinging lesson I learned as a child was never to expect sympathy from my parents after being beaten up in a fight. I can still hear the admonition, "Fight your own battles, learn to stand on your own two feet, and remember God helps those who help themselves."

Today this advice may sound out of place with so many news reports of innocent children being harmed. When the principle "fight your own battles" is taken narrowly it can be out of place. Taken in a broader sense, however, it contains valuable principles in an age desiring to make true progress. The broader sense of which I speak is developing healthy self-confidence, sturdy self-reliance and resourcefulness: principles that are imperative for achieving real human progress!

What is progress and the lessons it teaches us?

In his book Power and Responsibility, Romano Guardini points to normal ways we think of progress: "human life and health better protected; people working less; the living standard improving, and increased security."

But is this real progress, questions Guardini? Isn't it true that with more security we tend to rely on others instead of developing a healthy self-confidence that generates self-security? As wonderful as improved medicines are, isn't it true we have become more dependent on them and less dependent on seeking ways for eliminating their use? Yes, we can fly from one place to another quicker, but don't we shrink our breathing space by doing too much in too little time? What then is real progress? Guardini states it is "building up a vital confidence; expanding a sure instinct; having a will to health and increasing the natural powers of self-renewal."

In these principles of progress we possess the common denominator of self-determination. In his classic definition on courage, Guardini takes us further into the idea of progress and how it and courage complement each other.

"Courage," he states, "is the confidence required for living with a view to the future, for acting, building, assuming responsibilities and forming ties. For, in spite of our precautions, the future is in each case the unknown. But living means advancing into this unknown region, which may lie before us like chaos into which we must venture."

"Here everyone must make the venture in the confidence that the future is not chaos or a totally strange thing. Rather, his own character, the ordering power within him, will make a way so that it really is his own future into which he moves."

Note how we are encouraged to employ the ordering power within us and to be self-resourceful. Note especially how this calls for a self-determining spirit!

During my speed skating days, the coach would tell the team that when we are stiff after practice we should create ways of relieving the stiffness without resorting to painkillers. In essence, he was encouraging us to use our inner ordering powers, to be inventive, self-resourceful and self-determined.

This same principle was practiced by one of my best scripture teachers. Most memorable was his reply, "What do you think?" when he was asked a question. He was forever encouraging us to stretch our thinking powers and to use them as our best resource before resorting to outside sources as soon as we were stumped. "Fix it yourself and don't wait for someone else to do it!" "Give it a shot and see what happens!" were the modus agenda of our scripture class.

One day, while visiting a Hispanic exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., I happened upon a scene that lends depth to the meaning of self-reliance. There in front of me was a man on a television screen yelling, "What is resquache?"

"I'll tell you! It is when you lose the gas cap on your car and you take an old t-shirt and stuff it in the gas tank."

"What is resquache? It is when your TV is fluttering and you tell your son to put one hand on the old TV aerial and the other hand on a cloths hanger."

"What is resquache? It is when you stop your car to heat some tortillas on its engine block."

As I reflected on these hilarious suggestions, I realized they contained a wise lesson that I have since passed onto couples on their wedding day: "You will encounter road blocks in your marriage and feel they are impossible to get through! At moments like this remember that within you is ingenuity; believe you possess it and put it to use! Nine out of ten times you will find a solution; make resquache your motto! "

In the early 1980s, my research office at the bishops' conference conducted a study on Hispanics in the U.S. that taught us yet another dimension of the admonition, "Fight your own battles!" During the study, we came across the program, "Operation Bootstrap" that was in operation in Puerto Rico. It was based on the premise Puerto Ricans make the most lasting progress when they are encouraged to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps rather than counting on outside assistance. Relying on their own "ordering powers" was not only their most effective means for being successful, but more importantly, it guarantees long-term success. It empowered the Puerto Ricans to be their own person.

While writing this book, I told a philosophy professor of my chapter on self-reliance. Her reaction to it convinced me it is one of its most important chapters because it addresses a very serious problem facing today's students.

She told me that a growing number of students are committing suicide or suffering from deep depression because they can't handle pressure. She surmised one reason for this is parents who literally take care of everything for their children; they are seldom left to fend for themselves.

When I related the story to a high school teacher, his reaction was, "Oh, you are talking about "Helicopter Parents who are forever hovering over their children."

No doubt we live in a new age of heightened protectiveness. Every day the news is filled with crimes that have parents worried about their children's safety. We also live in an age of chauffeuring in which children more often than not are carted from one activity to another because of living long distances from their activities. This being true, how do we cultivate resourcefulness, self-determination and independence in today's protective age?

Before responding to this, we need to accept the fact that today's culture is much different from the past. When I was told to fight my own battles, World War II had just ended. During that war people came together and used their resourcefulness and determination to the maximum. And, too, neighbors looked out for all the children in the neighborhood because most mothers were homemakers and didn't go off to work. Let us now take up the question: how do we cultivate resourcefulness and self-determination in today's milieu?

The first thing we need to realize is we live in an age of heightened security that requires new wisdom for coping successfully with its challenges. Turning once again to Francis Bacon who states, "A prudent question is one-half wisdom", we need to apply our inquisitive powers to the impact our new age is having on us. For example, if we were to identify the variables causing us to be less resourceful and self-reliant, what would be the primary ones? What should we focus on most? Are we investing in societal crutches that are more of a disservice than a service to us? Does our educational system need to address better the growing number of people who can't cope with the increasing pressures of our times? And how does it address this? What must our society and religion focus on primarily? What role should religion fulfill in this matter? What additional studies need to be generated to shed greater light on the issue? By heightening our inquisitiveness, we avoid the risk of becoming matter-of-fact and wringing our hands after the fact when someone has committed suicide or gone into deep depression.

More often than not we define progress in terms of economic growth, military strength, scientific and medical breakthroughs, technological advances and increased security. As valid as this may be, it causes us to understate the potential of our natural powers of self-resourcefulness for making progress. Self-resourcefulness is a large part of a wholesome spirit and the ultimate measure of progress. On this point, Guardini emphasizes, "No matter where we start from, invariably we arrive at the same fundamental conclusion: the fundamental correction of cultural ills does not lie in the adoption of utilitarian reforms; however great their immediate advantages, their dangers are greater still. In the last analysis, the quality of culture is determined by the decisions of the spirit." To this we must add the future of our culture will be determined in great extent by a spirit that raises prudent questions aimed at producing true progress.