Life Lessons

My life is all about catch up these days,  and it wasn’t until yesterday that I read Walter Kirn’s   poignant piece in last Sunday’s NYT on losing one’s job, by means of a phone call, as  one’s children happily eat ice cream in the back seat,  and on his subsequent efforts that day to shield his children from his anguish.

He writes eloquently and introspectively of the myths of meritocracy in the U.S., of the damage to one’s psyche when, after a life time of striving, reward is not forthcoming:

For true believers in the gospel of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, the notion that bootstraps sometimes snap — and occasionally in great numbers, simultaneously — is destabilizing and bewildering. To accept that this notion is true may suggest that you have been lied to about how the system works, provoking resentment. To deny this truth may convince you that the defect lies in yourself, provoking despair.

The essay includes important analysis of the  historical antecedents of the distinctively American notion that economic failure is never an accident but is, instead, attributable to deeply personal shortcomings.

And he frames this all within his wrenching efforts on that day to shield his children from his despair, as he wonders how it is that they will understand the odds of their own success in economically tumultuous times. “Unless the children think the game is winnable”, her writes, ” even when it’s not, they might not play”.

Reading this,  I thought of the millions of children whose  parents cannot shield them from the day-to-day pain of years of unrewarded effort, children who learn within  schools that convey to them in every way possible that they’re  really not even in play.

We’ve promised these kids that they can test their way out of the circumstances of their parents lives.

But with precious little evidence that the tenacious efforts of their parents is paying off, why do we presume that they’ll even bother to play?

This was a beautifully written and important essay.  I recommend it highly.

And I  recommend also remembering that the reality that Kirn  faced on that tumultuous day is the grinding daily reality of millions of families in this country even in the best of economic times — that parents across the country grapple with the lessons that the struggles of their daily lives teach their own children,  even while few poor and working class parents would articulate their experiences so eloquently.

Even while few would be provided a national audience for what they had to say.


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2 thoughts on “Life Lessons

  1. Kim May 19, 2009 / 11:36 pm

    Why the assumption that poor and working class people can’t express themselves eloquently? I grew up working class. My husband and I toiled among the working poor until last year, when I finally earned my degree and went to work for a major university. From the age of 13, I was explicitly encouraged by my teachers to go into writing. I majored in journalism, completing my junior year in college before switching gears and going into info technology. Yet, my background as a member of the working and working poor classes would seem to preclude me from your definition of an eloquent human being.

    • janevangalen May 20, 2009 / 4:58 am

      Thanks for the comment.

      I guess that the people I was writing about here — not graduates of major universities, and not those identified early by teachers as gifted writers, but parents whose daily work does not and cannot inspire hope in their children — are not likely to spend their time writing eloquent essays about such things, as this author has done about his temporary situation, and they’re highly unlikely to have access to the readers of major national publications as audience for their thoughts on such things.

      And, frankly, many such parents have attended schools in which they spent much more time filling out grammar worksheets rather than actually writing, so regardless of intelligence or potential talent, may not have had the opportunity to develop their voice through writing.

      And there certainly are exceptions. Of course there are.

      I certainly intend to write against stereotypes of poor and working class people in this blog, so thanks for the opportunity to clarify,.

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