Self-Made v. Other-Made

In a recent post (Lost and Found, 4/27/2022), I reflected on Jesus’ curious call to discipleship,[1] in which my losing my life (living self-sacrificially) results in saving it and, contrarily, my seeking to save my life (that is, for myself) bears the cost of losing it.

In the latter case, saving my life, I recalled the notion of being “self-made” – generally, I wrote, “a complimentary description of a person whose success derived from individual ability and effort without external aid and often having overcome worldly disadvantages.”

In the latter case of “overcom(ing) worldly disadvantages,” I awoke this morning thinking of Frederick Douglass; who rose from the shackles of slavery to be a renowned writer and orator, abolitionist, social reformer, and statesman.[2] One of his most sought-after speeches was “Self-Made Men”[3] who, Douglass declared, “owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.”

The world of Douglass’ time (and before and after!) was not characterized by equality of advantage or ability for and of all. Thus, his message of self-determination is appealing. In its essence, it also squares with that human ages-old, nearly universal quest for personal autonomy and, nationally, our American romanticism of “rugged individualism.”

Nevertheless, I don’t believe in the theory, much less the reality of being and becoming self-made. Long I have maintained that no one arrives at a place of good without countless helping hearts and hands, many, if not most, unknown and unseen.[4] For notwithstanding the insights of, 23andme, or any other genetic testing service, none of us ever can know fully the life circumstances – the abilities and incapacities, the opportunities and disadvantages, the triumphs and trials – of every last soul in our lineage and all of those who influenced them.

Fact is (or so I think), none of us – whether theist, agnostic, or atheist – is self-made. We, each and all, are formed and are being formed by and with others.

In a word, now, speaking for myself (indeed, my self), I always am other-made. I am and become fully my individual self in the context of my communities, my relationships with others.

© 2022 PRA

#selfdetermination #ruggedindividualism #personalautonomy #relationships #selfmadeversusothermade

[1] Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16.24-25)

[2] Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)

[3] Douglass first delivered “Self-Made Men” in 1859, and, thereafter, many times. The speech, nearly 2500 words, is richly nuanced and worthy of reading and reflection.

[4] Although another matter, for another time, the same is true, I believe, for those arriving at places of ill. They have been hurt by countless hearts and hands.

4 thoughts on “Self-Made v. Other-Made

  1. Paul,

    When I read this yesterday I started making a list of all of the people who have helped me in all parts of my life up to this point in my life!! I thought it would be a simple exercise and I’d give you a quick number…. That was not the case and I’m still counting!! I also looked back through notes folks have sent me on how I’ve added to their lives and made a significant contribution to the people that they are! Both exercises are very humbling experiences!! All that said I also want to acknowledge that I’d be a very different person were it not for you in my life!

    Much love!


  2. Now, my beloved sister, you know that — regarding your word: “I’d be a very different person were it not for you in my life!” — we constitute a MAS, a mutual admiration society! For I think and feel and know the same thing about you!

    As for counting the folk who have helped you, you’ve given me the impetus to do the same thing AND, no surprise, I’ve arrived at the same place as you. I am still counting! Also, when I look back through notes and letters and cards from many expressing thanks to me for things that I did or said (or that they perceived that I did or said; for often enough what they received from me was more than I ever could have given or believed that I could have given!), in a number of instances, I had forgotten either the interaction or (I confess and beg God for forgiveness!) the person! All of which confirms for me anew that we…that I cannot know all those who have helped me. For most of the time, they are unseen for they lived centuries ago and influenced those who eventually influenced me. And sometimes they, although in the/my present, have influenced those around me, yet remain unseen and unknown or they, in their deeds, had no conscious knowledge of helping me or, again, I say with confession, I have forgotten.

    All of this constitutes the nature of miracle. Amazing!

    Love you


  3. I LOVE our MAS!!! It scares me how many things and people I have forgotten that I’ve helped over the years and it’s no where near the number of folks you’ve helped through your ministry!
    Much Love!


    1. Ah, my beloved sister, now, here’s the thing. When we try to count the number of folk to whom we’ve offered our helping hearts and hands, there is no way to know how many. For there are those — as we’ve re-realized — that we had forgotten. And there are those of whom we’ll never know, for, many times over and many moments removed from us, they were helped by those we had helped. So, my Loretta, I am not sure, not at all that I’ve assisted in helping to make better the lives of more folk than you. God knows! I simply and profoundly rejoice that you and I can — and are willing! — do what we can when we can with what we have for whom we can.



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