Friday, May 11, 2012
What Did I Do to Deserve This? Part One
Yesterday, I wrote a bit about humility--about our tendency to attribute our success to ourselves, to blame our failures on others.
I want to expand that a little today, mostly because I find what's lacking in a lot of political debate these days is humility. And imagination. Some public figures seem to imply (and some even state) that it was their work ethic and piety that earned them their lofty status.
We have to be humble about our accomplishments (such as they are); we have to be able to imagine what things would have been like if we had been born into different circumstances. Sure--individual initiative is important; sure--some people work harder than others. But just listen ...
I'm going to use myself as an example.
In many ways I've had a successful life. I had a career I loved. (Never got fired, never laid off.) I've had some success in publishing. (I'm going to leave Joyce and our son out of this for a while.) I own a home (almost! the bank still claims a chunk). I have a decent retirement income. Medicare. And so on. I can really say that I don't have much to worry about--except, of course, time's winged chariot, hurrying near ...
So ... have I earned the right to say: "I earned all that. I worked hard. I didn't count on others to take care of me"?
Here's why: If life is a race (it isn't--but for now), I got to start way, way down the track from most other folks in this world. Here's how.
First, I was born a white male in a Christian family in the mid-twentieth century in the United States, a country that was using World War II to become a world military and economic power. What did I do to "deserve" that? Nothing. My parents had a good time one night; nine months later came the smelly, noisy consequence.
My white maleness--and my family's Christianity--put me in the class that has pretty much been in power in this country ever since, oh, 1603. Jamestown. I didn't do anything. But all my life I've enjoyed the privileges that those genetic and historical accidents have provided. For too long, I'm embarrassed to say, I thought I'd earned them.
Yet over on the other side of Market were kids every bit as bright as I, every bit as ambitious. But in Enid, Oklahoma, 1950, their "race" with me was no race at all. Jim Crow forced them to start so far behind me that I could stroll around the track. Stroll. Which I did. No need to work up a sweat.
So did I "deserve" all those advantages? (That's a rhetorical question.)
And now one more thing before pausing for today. My family. My father and mother both believed deeply in education. My father grew up on a farm in Oregon, then worked his way through college, served in both theaters in World War II. After the war, Dad went on to graduate school. He enjoyed all the perks of being a white male war veteran. (Have you read what black war veterans faced when they returned? What happened to women who'd held jobs while men were away at war?) My mother was the daughter of a preacher and professor. She grew up around books and to this day (she's 92) spends much of her time reading. She eventually earned her Ph.D. and ended her career, with Dad, teaching at Drake University. I wouldn't call their marriage idyllic, but few are. I had two healthy brothers, one older, one younger. We grew up with lots of books and music and art in the house and with parents who stayed married and encouraged all three of us in our endeavors. They took us on trips, insisted we do our schoolwork, taught us to be civil, and so on.
What did I do to "deserve" that? (Another rhetorical question.)
As I said yesterday, I can take credit for none of this. Nor for the genes from both sides of the family that have given me whatever natural talents I possess. About all I could have done--as I've said--is screw that all up.
Tomorrow ... Some thoughts about what this means for me--and, maybe, for the rest of us ...