The Responsibility of Being Lucky
A few months ago I watched a clip on Upworthy, it was part of a speech by, and interview with, Michael Lewis. He talked about “Noblesse Oblige”, an idea he says used to be robust, but has faded from our culture — an idea that’s easy, and convenient, to forget.
no·blesse oblige noun \nō-ˈbles-ə-ˈblēzh\
: the idea that people who have high social rank or wealth should be helpful and generous to people of lower rank or to people who are poor
: the obligation of honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth
Lewis says his own case “illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck, especially successful people.”
It’s been months since I watched that short clip on Upworthy, but I think about it all the time. And, as a society, how we look at success is something I’ve been thinking about since long before I saw that video. Lewis is right, in my opinion: we don’t like to admit — even to ourselves— that our success is owed to anything outside of ourselves. We worked hard, and that is how we got where we are; those who don’t have what we have must not have worked as hard.
This is, in my opinion, related to another issue: the prejudice that exists in our society against people who are homeless or living in poverty. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines prejudice as:
- an unfair feeling of dislike for a person or group because of race, sex, religion, etc.
- a feeling of like or dislike for someone or something especially when it is not reasonable or logical
- preconceived judgment or opinion: an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge
I recently read an article in a student newspaper entitled “The last accepted prejudice: the homeless in Canada and the unforgivable stigmatization of our most vulnerable citizens” and it has really stuck with me — because it’s true.
“Maybe if they didn’t spend all their money on drugs/smokes/booze, they’d be in a better place”
“They’re just lazy, why don’t they get a job?!”
“They’re just leeching off the system, why should I have to pay for them?”
“When it comes down to it, it’s a choice…”
It seems impossible, but sometimes, when I hear things like these, I am lost for words. So many feelings come up at once: disbelief, dismay, anger, frustration, indignation…
Countless facts, statistics, stories that could help challenge this harmfully prevelant perspective rush through my mind. But because I want to say everything at once, and that’s impossible, I’m lost for words. Sometimes, I just stand there and gape.
“Are you serious?”
We want to think that if someone is homeless, or poor, it is through some fault of their own. Just like we want to believe that if we are successful it is because we worked hard and earned everything we have — not because we are lucky. Why is this so important to us?
I think it’s a psychological self-defense mechanism.
We want to believe we are in complete control.
We need to believe we are in complete control.
Uncertainty is scary and uncomfortable; we despise it, but the truth is it’s all we have. We spend so much time and energy trying to abolish any and all uncertainly from our lives; we study, get degrees and certifications, work hard, earn, plan, save, set goals, achieve them, then plan, save and set some more.
We tell ourselves that if we do it all right, if we tick off all the right boxes, we’ll be good to go. Deep down inside, we know it’s a lie.
Last spring* a hurricane ripped the limbs off huge, old, tall, strong trees — tore them right up from their roots.
We tell ourselves we can make things “safe”, minimize uncertainty until it’s negligible — virtually non-existent. We can’t. We can try, but it’s nothing more than willful self-delusion. We want safety, but we can’t have it.
Ironically, our individualistic society makes us all much more vulnerable to uncertainty. No matter how much we save and prepare and plan, sometimes we need help from other people. Sometimes, things just happen and we have no control. If we all just took care of each other — I mean really though — then no one would have to worry.
*Spring of 2014
I wrote parts of what is above in Julia Wright’s creative non-fiction writing class in the summer of 2014, and other parts last November.
I wanted to add that I’m not saying any of this is easy. I understand the resistance to admitting our success comes (even in part) from anything outside of ourselves. It can feel like what we’re saying is that somehow we don’t deserve what we have. It’s extremely uncomfortable — especially if we already feel like we’re basically just pretending we have our shit together. I think, though, that if we can be sure of our own self worth, instead of feeling ashamed, we can feel gratitude for what we have, a healthy sense of pride (in ourselves, our ability, and our achievements) and at the same time humility (because we know, as Michael Lewis said, that there is a certain amount of luck baked into it all). This also presents an opportunity to feel more compassion towards others, no matter what their situation.
Making friends with uncertainty is no walk in the park. In fact, since writing this, I had an interesting experience where I realized that, while I may talk a big game about being comfortable with uncertainty, and I may understand, intellectually, that everything in life is uncertain, I have yet to really internalize this understanding. On some level, I still secretly think (or maybe even need to be believe) that somehow it’s all going to work out.
One day I was feeling particularily doom and gloom about things, so I was tryin to calm myself down. I was thinking, reassuringly, to myself, it’s OK; it’s all going to work out, somehow, when a little, scared voice, piped in: but what if it doesn’t?…
The response came from somewhere deep inside me. The tone was calm and kind, but very firm.
That’s not the point.
What is the point? Well, that is the question, isn’t it. Growing up, I spent my summers in Maine at a summer camp — 7 years as a camper, 3 as a counselor. At camp, we were taught that it was important to “make the world more beautiful and better because you have been in it.”
Maybe the world is going to hell in a hand basket no matter what.
Maybe half of New Brunswick will be under water in a few decades because of rising sea levels.
Maybe, tomorrow, on my way to work I’ll get hit by a bus.
But maybe not.
And, either way, I’m going to get up and go to work tomorrow. Either way, I’m going to try my very best to live a life true to myself, not to my fears.