I had one of those frustrating conversations with a guy at my gym the other day. You probably have had one or more of these if, like me, you aren’t afraid to engage in the kind of discourse that can either elevate understanding or degenerate into hostility. This one was about whether those living in poverty have anyone to blame but themselves for their plight.
My rhetorical opponent in our little debate held to the view that anyone could escape a life of poverty with a simple exertion of good old-fashioned hard work. To make the discussion meaningful, my gym-mate quickly agreed that certain classes of individuals (e.g., those born with physical disabilities or into slavery) were excluded from his strongly held belief.
We then turned our attention to the rest of the class under discussion: the chronically poor who are always on the brink of complete impoverishment with seemingly no way out of their condition. One such individual is the central character in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Tony Award winning play, “Good People,” which is now in production at Sacramento’s “Capital Stage.” Margaret, the play’s central character, is constantly losing those low-paying jobs she occasionally finds because of tardiness. Her tardiness is caused by the need she has to care for her special-needs adult daughter who was born (out-of-wedlock) with a less than fully functioning brain.
The play suggests that much of Margaret’s plight, while of her own making, is largely due to the luck of the draw. She was born of parents who were not good role models, and she didn’t have the good fortune of a teacher or other person who guided her to decisions that would have helped her to avoid her lot in life. Her high school boyfriend (the possible father of her daughter) escaped the same fate in part because his parents did steer him away from a life of crime and underachievement. Instead, largely because of some good breaks, he went to college, graduated, and then went to medical school. The play focuses on the different lives the two have led, suggesting that the guy’s good fortune was not solely due to his hard work, albeit he had to work hard to get where he ended up, while Margaret’s bad fortune was not entirely due to her inability to work hard, if, indeed, she lacked the willingness in the first place.
Another way to describe Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s theme is with the phrase “check your privilege,” which has become something of a controversial term of late, thanks to an essay penned by a Princeton freshman named Tal Fortgang. Mr. Fortgang, who identifies himself as a political conservative, took on the political opposition he was encountering on the Princeton campus by condemning the phrase as having been “handed down by my moral superiors.” His essay has now gone viral on the web and he has become something of a star on Fox News and in the conservative blogosphere.
Moral superiors notwithstanding, “checking your privilege” is precisely what my argument with the guy at the gym was really all about last week. I asked him at one point what kind of parents he had. “Good ones,” he replied, proudly. “The kind who taught me right from wrong and who imbued in me a strong work ethic,” he added.
I asked him if he thought he would have achieved the level of success in life he has if he had been born of parents who weren’t so enlightened or who didn’t pass on those attitudes to him.
“Then I’d have had to buckle up even harder to make something of myself,” he said, oblivious to the point I was trying to make. After a few more pointless exchanges, we “agreed to disagree” and got on with our respective workouts.
And then I saw Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s play, and I again felt the frustration I had felt in the gym that morning.
My point isn’t that hard work is irrelevant to achieving success (however that word is defined) or to escaping poverty (that word presumably doesn’t need definition). And, yes, I do often wonder if the guys who panhandle on the corner of a busy intersection I drive through every day on my way to work couldn’t do more for themselves if they would take on even a minimum wage job.
But what made them who they are? How did they end up on the wrong side of the good fortune divide? Is it really as easy as saying they chose their lot in life?
In the end, of course, we are all responsible for our actions and our decisions. That’s the nature of the way we understand what being alive is all about. We choose to do certain things and not do other things. We come to hold certain values or we don’t hold those values. We believe or we don’t believe, have faith or don’t have faith, all because of our own choices.
But how those choices and decisions come to us and are made isn’t so clearly something over which we have real control. No one chooses his or her parents. And few of us can choose in our childhood whether we will be introduced to certain viewpoints and attitudes and not to others. So much in life is fortuitous. Baseball players like to say that over a season the good breaks and the bad breaks even out. But is that true in life? Or does one critical bad break (or one fortunate good one) have the ability to set a course that is nearly impossible to overcome or deny?
My views should not be seen as encouraging sloth and irresponsibility. To the contrary, I am all for acknowledging and accepting the benefits that come from hard work. Medals that are won in the struggle to succeed are to be commended.
But anyone who thinks luck played no part in securing those medals doesn’t understand a whole lot about life. It all starts with, “There but for the grace of God …”