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.