The hidden virtues of autonomy

The path to a more meaningful life often coincides with the path to a more autonomous lifestyle. Why is that?

As I explore how to be more autonomous in my daily life, adding both meaning and purpose to even the smallest of actions, I am surprised at the shift occuring in my understanding of the world. These are the main benefits I derive from a quest for more autonomy.

Autonomy to exercise critical judgement

The most common definitions of autonomy focus on the following words or expressions: “independence”, “self-government”, “freedom from control or influence of others”. An autonomous person is therefore someone who thinks and acts for himself.

You’ve probably forgotten what it felt like to become more autonomous while you were growing up, but as an adult, I’m sure you’ve already experienced the consequences of autonomy while learning a new skill. Suddenly, as your mastery of a specific skill increases and you are able to perform it without support, you become more critical and capable of judging someone else’s contribution. Autonomy makes you more critical, it frees you not only from other people’s actions (those they perform to offer you what you need) but also other people’s opinions or thoughts. Suddenly, you are capable of thinking by and for yourself.

This is exactly what is happening with me as I learn how to grow vegetables, cook wild plants, make my own cleaning and bodycare products, and sew my own clothes. Not only do I realise the tremendous amount of work any of these acts entails, but I also discover the power and harm inherent in the markets that sell these products to us. What was once a good deal for a pair of jeans becomes now a blatant injustice now that I know the time it takes to create garments. Why would I pay 10 times the price of a shower gel when I know how to create one myself?

By learning to live more autonomously, I ‘experience’ ideas about how society should be which I had only previously thought were right. Now I ‘experience’ them as right, and it makes a world of difference.

Autonomy as a social act

Far from being a solitary activity, autonomy generates and strengthens social bonds. Indeed, there is no autonomy without transmission of knowledge or skills. This happens either through a filial, social or contractual bond, the latter being by far the weakest.

Once a person is able to think and act autonomously, he or she gradually masters various skills. At a certain point, the mastery acquired yearns to be shared and transmission occurs, again. This virtuous cycle  of autonomy-mastery-transmission is at the heart of many social interactions, and still the main form of education and lifelong learning in traditional societies.

I am amazed by how strong the desire to transmit knowledge or skills is when these were not obtained by paying for them. A beautiful and lasting bond is established between a mentor and his mentee, whether the mentor is a parent, a friend or a wise old (wo)man kindly taking you under their wings.

Autonomy is a never-ending fight, it is never granted. I thought I was an autonomous woman after having finished school, leaving my parents’ home and being able to satisfy my personal needs.  I was wrong! I am still a long way from being autonomous, in all its meanings. I am looking forward to my next challenges, both on the learning side – learning to build my own home, to heal myself and my beloved ones – and on the transmission side.

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