Thursday, February 16, 2012
The Self-Made Man (not so much)
I went for a run this afternoon in the rain before dinner. I took a new route that brought me into the university and past several construction sites. Passing those, the people working there occasionally looked up to watch me pass. I thought about them toiling there mixing concrete, ripping siding down, and operating a crane. I imagined them looking at me as a privileged fellow who gets to run in the later afternoon when they are still working hard at jobs that I wouldn't want. I imagined them considering the silver spoon they imagined I was born with.
I went through a couple of reactions to this imagining. One was pity. I felt bad for these guys doing hard work in the bad weather while I was able to go for a run (something I enjoy) and still go home to a lovely home and enough cash in my bank account to keep me secure. Another reaction was to indignantly wonder why they would deny me my advantages when I have worked hard for them and made smart choices in my life. Neither reaction struck me as all that interesting and instead I went with something like this: I live one life, they live another life, and who is to say which is better or worse. I'm happier with my life every day, and especially when I go out for runs on a regular basis and then sit down to write about things, and maybe they are satisfied with their lives too. It's not as though they are begging by the side of the road or waiting in a Hospice bed for death to take them.
It got me thinking though about the fallacy of the self-made man. It's a notion I hear often enough. A guy I went to high school with argued with me a couple years ago about how those who have worked to make themselves wealthy do not have any obligation to those who have not worked as hard. Maybe that's true (though I doubt it) but I think he was confusing the ideas quite a bit. He is a doctor, as is his father, and he was brought up in a very wealthy suburb that was home to a phenomenally well-funded school and he didn't want for food or shelter. It's not like he had to pick himself up by his bootstraps and take on the world on his own. He thinks of himself as self-made and those who can't afford his luxuries as lazy. I think otherwise, but I'm not here to argue his life and his ideas.
I'm thinking instead of myself and how I have gotten to the place I am in right now. I want to think about how hard I have worked and the ways in which I have made my way, and I have done a fair share of that. But I keep thinking also of all the people who have made this life of mine possible.
Begin with my parents. They provided me not only with food, clothing, and every convenience, but they also gave me a sense of comfort in that none of these things were ever in question. I didn't ever think that we wouldn't be able to afford dinner or the electric bill. Hell, it never occurred to me that there wouldn't be an embarrassingly large pile of toys and clothing under the Christmas tree. My parents never let me worry about that. And when it came time for me to earn my own money starting with a paper route and moving through the jobs I held until college, they showed me how to take care of things.
My wife took over a lot of my care and feeding after that. She made me feel as though I was capable of anything and she made it possible for me to take chances. She organized things so that the life I wanted was not just possible, but reasonable to expect.
Friends, teachers, employers, and a list that goes on for many more than 750 words made possible the luxurious life I now lead. I had a hand in it too, but it's not like I'm a self-made man. I don't know anyone who is though I've heard a lot of people speak as though they are.
So, as I run past those guys working construction I thank all the people who have helped me to live the life I want to lead. I thank them for setting me up to succeed. And I think about how I can help my children, my wife, my parents, my friends, and anyone else. It's the least I can do to repay all that I've been given.
Posted by Brian G. Fay