Friday, September 9, 2011

What's Luck Got To Do With It?

Sometimes I say how lucky I've been in life, and people get mad at me. They misinterpret my acknowledging the circumstances in which I grew up as my being self-effacing or humble. They think I'm saying that I am lucky to be successful, or that I think I don't deserve my success. But that's not what I'm saying.

Instead, I'm commenting less about my life now, and more about how I grew up. The fact is, I'm incredibly lucky. My parents are the most supportive, encouraging, and understanding parents possible. They were coaches and guides when I was a child, and now they're friends and advocates. They made huge sacrifices to give me an amazing education and they still support decisions that take me far from my family or are otherwise rather random or controversial.

I think knowing how lucky I am to have had this kind of childhood makes me really leery when people use cultural mythologies such as the American Dream, or that all men are created equal, to blast ideas of charity, or the idea that society needs to support its least well off. I'd love to think that those myths are true, and that we can all pull ourselves up by the bootstraps if we really want to. It'd be wonderful if opportunities come to everyone no matter what their circumstances, should they just take advantage of it.

It would also make sense if I believed these things, considering my own parent's lives. They both were middle children in working class families who "made it." They are tremendous success stories, unprecedented in their families.

And yet, I know my parents were incredibly smart, strong people who struggled with the might of lions to get where they are now. My dad would also argue they lived in a different America, one that took better care of its citizens. Furthermore, my mom's choice to teach special needs children her whole life has made me realize how blessed I am, and that there are so many different kinds of inequality in our world.

My mom's schools have a variety of different students who need to be educated outside the public system for a variety of reasons. Some are severely autistic, or brain injured, or otherwise mentally or physically impaired. Some come to her schools because they're victims of the most extreme abuse--physical, mental, or sexual. Some come simply because they've been ignored all their lives and have no idea how to act in society. They're basically a modern form of feral child, raised by technology rather than wolves.

Over the course of my life, I've spent a lot of time thinking about those kids, and who is going to take care of them. Some of the children are lucky enough to have marvelous, engaged parents who'd do anything for them--but who are also mortal. The victims of abuse are part of a system that has no money to support them. And these kids have already had everything I took for granted--all that love with which I grew up--perverted. And then there are the kids who, as they may say in a hip hop song, don't know how to act. But that's because no one has ever taught them.

So we have some kids who simply can't be self-sufficient and our system has to think through how we're going to accommodate them when their parents can't do it. But what about the kids who are damaged in so many other ways that aren't as apparent, or visible, or diagnosable as, say, autism? Can a person pull themselves up by the bootstraps, when they've never even been given a pair of boots?

I think about all the opportunities I've had that stem from my confidence, which was a product of all that love I felt as a child. I think of the doors that have opened because my parents taught me how to talk to adults and how to be productive, socially. I think about all the things I've been able to take advantage of because I never doubted my own abilities, and because I know that if I fail I'll still have people who love me.

And then I think about what it would be like not to have any of these intangible benefits. I don't have a special glow, because I was loved, nor do I have a special pass to a special club. And yet that's what it sometimes feels like, when I think about it--like everything I grew up with made all the hurdles a bit shorter or shaved a few miles off all the marathons.

I'm not saying that everyone who didn't have it perfect in life should have a free pass. I'm just saying that before we assume everyone's equal, and that we all had the same chances, we really examine our own lives. Oftentimes we'll find more legs-up than we thought.

Because I don't like living in a country where there is so much suffering. I certainly don't like living in one in which poverty sits side-by-side with the most grotesque wealth. And I think it is our responsibility to watch out for one another, especially for those people who've never gotten a break.


Elly Danica said...

Awesome post. While I wasn't given your gifts in childhood I've certainly had many in the years since. And I agree wholeheartedly, we do need to look out for each other. Thank you for your insightful post.

Sophie Littlefield said...

hey you...a good way to start my day. i woke up thinking about a few obstacles i'm facing, and this was the reminder i needed that i've got the tools, advantages, and gifts to face them - *and* have some left over to put into the problems you describe, the people whose stories you tell here.

Gigi Pandian said...

I had a very similar upbringing with amazingly supportive parents who taught me that I could do anything I wanted to do -- and then gave me the tools to do just that. Even when I hit bumps in the road, you bet I remember to count my abundance of blessings.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Nicole, I'm with you! I always wonder how I would have fared in a different family -- I was a sickly, shy kid, afraid of failure and timid. My family supported me at every now I'm not so timid :-) I would like everyone in the world to be born into a family with similar advantages -- we weren't wealthy, but had enough. If only we could all say the same.

Rachael Herron said...

Lovely. A good, difficult thing to think about and you put it perfectly. My bootstraps were long and made for pulling, and some don't have them at all. Good to remember.

Dawne Spangler said...

Thanks for reminding me.

Nicole Peeler said...

Elly: Thanks for commenting! Glad you enjoyed the post.

Sophie: I will give you a big hug and smooches this Friday! Doesn't that make everything better, too??? ;-)

Gigi: Exactly! It's like when things DO go bad, I also realize how lucky I am. Anyway, it's a much better way of being in the world than always seeing the holes and absences. But, then again, I'm lucky to not have many holes and absences . . .

Juliet: Exactly. And so many of the most important advantages are the intangible ones. Like knowing I get to see you and Sophie next week!

Rachel: I love that line, about the bootstraps! Wish I were seeing you, too, next week. *hugs*

Thanks to you, Dawne, for commenting. ;-)

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