In his most recent newsletter, former Wall Street Journal columnist Jonathan Clements observes (correctly) that most of us will never be fabulously wealthy, that we should stop feeling bad about that, and that this bizarre cultural belief leads people to be discontent with any achievement, and to chase hucksters who promise self-transformation and lunatic investment schemes. (See the full text here, and consider subscribing—while I don’t agree with him on everything, it’s always worth a read.)
As I read this, I found myself agreeing with many of his points. He’s spot on when he points out that in fact we can’t be anything we want to be—neither he nor I will ever be a star athlete, and despite years of flailing away on various musical instruments, it’s dawned on me that I’m not going to have much of a concert career. He’s correct, in my view, that we should incorporate a dose of realism in our dreams and plans.
But, the entire article left me with a little downbeat of sadness. I think there’s an important diminuendo that has somehow overcome the melody. The main theme of our lives has become (in my lifetime) that your job is all important and determines your identity: your parents focus on that from early childhood (college education resulting in a job); you are encouraged to choose your major based on future employ-ability (and of course, college is the only option); you work instead of raising your own children (and women make less money because, in part, they take more time off for children even when holding down a full-time position). We are evaluated by where we live, what we drive, what schools our children attend, and on, and on.
I recently saw a number of comments that people in first class airline seats should be treated better—not with more perks (legit if you’re paying for them), but in terms of actual respect and politeness—because they paid for it. Human dignity has come to depend on the wealth attached to the person. Rather than encouraging solidarity among we have-nots, it foists the conviction that the only aspiration is to join the moneyed elite (note I did not say talented, or educated, or in any way meritorious outside of wealth). More than one person in this country aspires to arm candy and gold coated toilets.
It wasn’t always like this, and I’m old enough to remember differently. Long ago I wrote an article on the value of church youth groups. I will never forget the Orthodox youth leader who told me that, because of their religious beliefs and dress, many of the kids in his group were mocked and bullied at the public school, but belonging to the synagogue’s youth group gave them identity and a way to achieve success and form friendships. My parents, aunts, uncles, etc. never had careers. For the most part they worked pretty crummy and often unpleasant jobs. But my parents had a happy marriage, my mom and aunts had many friends, and I don’t think they felt inferior (except for a wish to have had a college education in my mother’s case.) They showed me that there are other ways to be happy and feel like you have worth and achievement—and most of these don’t cost much:
- Amateur sports. My dad and my aunt both played after-work softball; my cousin was the star of his bowling team. You could be somebody, you could be a hero, you could hang out with a group and you actually were out getting some exercise.
- Music and dance. My parents spent weekends square dancing for many years—traveling to other neighborhoods, challenging other groups, hanging out at each other’s houses afterwards. Dad might be loading trucks on the dock during the day, but he was president of the club on weekends.
Many kids attain a high level of expertise in music, then give it up entirely in college and never touch the instrument again, because after all that hard work, they know they can’t “make a living” at it. People who persist are pitied for trying to scrape together a living. Parents never again show up at a musical performance if their kid isn’t playing.
I’m always charmed by the Hawaiian music traditions, where people get handed an instrument very early, and pick up an awful lot of amateur ability by sitting around together playing and singing with older family members. Before tv and electronics, it used to be like that here—or so my grandmother said.
- Hobbies & crafts. Making something is an achievement, pure and simple. Having a passionate interest in some area or craft gives you groups to join, events to attend, and even the pleasure of being able to make snarky comments about someone less skilled or expert than you. My aunt had less than two years of high school, but she knew how to install a zipper and I’m afraid that part of her pleasure at church on Sundays was evaluating the (lack of) skill of all the other women in too-obviously homemade dresses. Of course, this was when most women still felt they could attempt to sew. But who has time? Where can you learn? And, as a friend once said to me, if you get any more craft-y, they’ll come and take back your University of Chicago degree.
- Fix-it ability. My uncle spent his life as an injection molder. But he could work on anyone’s car, hang and tape drywall, re-plumb a bathroom and hook up a fuse box. (He had also been Illinois state chess champion in high school, and although he couldn’t read a note he played a mean piano by ear.) I don’t think he had much scope for achievement in his job, but my family admired him greatly—because, in our little group, Harold could do EVERYTHING. As far as I know, he was entirely self-taught. His job may have regarded him as an automaton, but in his “real” life he had agency: control and recognized ability.
- Activism. My grandfather was a union man at the height of the struggle for fair wages and improved safety in the mines. He was somebody in his union, even if his employers thought he was ignorant and his life expendable. His co-workers admired him and he inspired them.
I think about money mostly all day, every day. I know it’s important. But what I’m adding on to Clement’s ideas is a plea that we find self-worth and recognition in ways that don’t depend solely on money. In fact, everything I’ve listed above doesn’t depend at all on a college education, or income, of even luck. And that’s a change in societal values that I’d like to see—and one we can seize for ourselves.