I’m wrong sometimes. I’m grateful for the opportunity to live long enough to discover many instances in my life where I’ve thought about things the wrong way. Some people don’t get that chance. Others don’t take the opportunity and just go on believing they are, and have always been, right. This is often due to pride, fear, or a simple lack of knowledge.
At any rate, today I want to discuss one area where I’ve been wrong in the past, and dangerously so. It is the very American idea that anyone, regardless of how poor or unskilled, can simply use hard work and effort to escape poverty or just generally-bad situations.
It’s easy to understand why I bought into this lie and perpetuated it for so many years. It is enticing. It is encouraging. It is something I would like to believe. Plus our society and media love a good rags-to-riches story. “If they can do it, so can you!” gives us hope.
Alongside hope, though, it can give us a judgmental and elitist attitude. It can cause us to look at people who are perpetually suffering and blame them for not trying harder. It certainly did that for me.
I have recently been reading a number of books that changed my attitude on the subject, alongside personal experiences with people outside of my “normal bubble.” One such book is Evicted by Matthew Desmond, and though I am only halfway through it, I recommend it to anyone who might not have a lot of contact with those less fortunate or stuck in harsh situations. Beyond reading, you can also get yourself into volunteer opportunities to meet people in such circumstances face to face, and hopefully help them with your own two hands.
The truth is life is complicated. We desperately want it to be as simple as “work hard and you’ll make it.” If you worked hard (or even not-that-hard, but had a lot of help/luck) and made it, this nudges you towards the idea that others can do precisely what you did. Surely you aren’t special. What worked for you will work for them, right?
This is, sadly, false. Each individual’s life is unique. Your mental, physical, and even emotional capabilities are your own. Some people, even though we wish it weren’t true, can’t do what you do. That is certainly not to excuse anyone for not trying their best, but it reminds us that everyone’s best is vastly different.
Many moons ago, on a previous blog, I wrote a parable called The Lava Goat. I did this as a reminder to myself to not make claims that certain things are easy, just because they happen to be easy for me. Little did I know the parable extends far past my original intention. A variation on this story would focus less on the ease of traversing lava and more on the impossibility for some to even make the attempt.
I have, in the past, fallen into the trap of excusing my elitist perspective by reminding people “it’s not easy, but it’s possible.” At the time, I felt this was a reasonable thing to do. What this doesn’t take into account are the times when it is, for all intents and purposes, actually impossible. It doesn’t allow for sympathy or empathy for those who have such an enormous mountain to climb that they may never be able to do it, hard work or not.
I have a lung issue, stemming from nothing more than my natural height and weight. I could no more change it than I could grow an additional four feet by willpower or training. It makes breathing at high altitudes difficult or impossible. So while it seems like the statement “Anyone can climb Mount Everest if they work hard enough” is reasonable and encouraging, it’s simply not true.
I don’t expect this blog post to drastically change the life of anyone reading it. If you currently, as I once did, believe anyone can work hard and succeed then it’s unlikely I’m going to change your mind here and now. It’s probably as ingrained in you as it was me. It was only through experience, reading, and an increase of empathy for others that my perspective was altered. I’m glad it was. That’s why I’m suggesting to others that you take a hard look at things like this and consider the other side. Make friends with someone who lacks the mental capacity to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Experience a glimpse of the feeling of being so overwhelmed by debt and past mistakes that bouts of devastating depression* become the norm. Study human psychology (you don’t need a degree, just do some reading!) that shows us people who are struggling lose their sense of foresight and become encapsulated in the “now” without any real choice on their part.
We always have choices to make. Some are easy, some are monstrously difficult. Some things, regardless of our choices, are outside our control. I can’t magically heal my lungs so I can go mountain climbing. Many people are trapped in situations that hard work simply can’t fix. We need to remember that, so when we’re speaking with others we don’t make brash assumptions. Just because we ourselves, or others we’ve heard about, have worked hard and improved our own circumstances that doesn’t automatically means anyone can do the same. We should keep trying our best, and remember even while we do: sometimes our best simply will not be good enough. This is not an excuse to stop trying, but it keeps us humble should we have a different experience that others.
*If someone has never been in the state of deep depression you have no idea how it changes your present world. We absolutely should attempt to get out of it should we find ourselves in that state of being, but it’s never as black and white while inside it. It’s one reason we need to train against things like depression (or even general negativity) when not currently in that state. You can read more about that training here.