The other day, someone said he wasn’t “smart or lucky enough” to do what I’m doing. It’s not the first time that particular person has said something along those lines, either, but that’s a completely different story.
I’ve also had other people remark that I must have had an easy life since I’m generally calm and in good spirits. After all, if my life were harder, surely I wouldn’t be so jovial, kind-hearted, and possibilistic.
Both sets of beliefs posit that history defines our attitudinal states and/or capabilities. Both sets of beliefs are woefully incomplete.
I’ve written before that we can’t just look at history, luck, or intention separate from each other when we’re considering how our lives are formed and lived. Looking through the frame of history, luck, and intention isn’t as easy as trying to pick one, but I prefer an accurate framework over an easy one.
Let’s take another look at how lucky I’ve been:
- I was born to a poor, multiracial family in the South.
- I remember the fights my mom and dad had in front of us before, during, and after their divorce. There’s a motion picture of my mom throwing a huge plastic terrarium at my dad that I’ve never been able to shake.
- My mom moved a block away from my dad so that we could stay close, but it also meant that my brother and I were frequent emotional pawns in their tumultuous post-divorce relationship.
- My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 8. We were too poor and uneducated to really know what that meant, so it was a scary time. I spent many a night in my mom’s bed holding her hand because she thought she was going to die.
- I happened to be home from school one day when my mom collapsed in the shower. She screamed when she fell, so I had to break a locked door to find my semi-conscious, naked mother bleeding in the bath tub. I don’t remember whether I called 911 or ran to get my dad – who happened to be home, as well – but it’s hard for a 9-year old boy to watch his mom be driven away in an ambulance, not knowing whether the bathroom scene would be the last time he saw his mother alive.
- Mom recovered, kind of. She took chemo for what seemed to be forever, and this was the late eighties in the South. At that time, it was common for cancer patients to not know whether the chemo would kill them before the cancer did.
- During this period, my mom and dad independently let me know that if I ever wanted to make anything of myself, I’d have to do it on my own. My mom didn’t know if she’d be a cancer survivor, and my dad knew he’d be too poor to do anything but keep us alive. My dad was also older and a hard-worker – since I had already ingrained that parents die on you, I saw that it was a possibility that he’d die from either over-work or due to the family history of heart problems. I took their words to heart.
- It took years for Mom to get full use in her right arm back. We had an old Honda civic with a manual transmission, so I learned how to time shift-sticking with my left hand to her pedal operations. We made it work.
- To make ends meet, mom got a paper route. In the fifth and six grades, I’d get up, roll papers, and throw them while she drove. It’s no wonder I’m a morning person – I spent years getting up well before sunrise and working. We only did that a few years before it was clear that it just wasn’t worth it compared to the other jobs she might get.
The better job that mom got was being a nurse’s aid. The highest demand for work was during the 2nd and 3rd shifts, so for the next few years, I’d either come home to a skillet of Hamburger Helper that she cooked before she left for work at 3pm or, on luckier days, she’d leave around 10pm and be home just in time to see me off to school. Some days, she’d work a 3rd shift on one day and the 2nd shift on the next, so I’d have all of 20 minutes of time with my family.
My brother is six years older than I am, so while all of this is going on, he’s being a teenager. Not the “studious, providing for the family kind,” either – more like the “getting in trouble, chasing girls, and staying gone” kind. Everything that we had been through was taking a heavy toll on him, too. His ticket out of it was the Marines and he got an early ticket. Very shortly after his graduation – when I was 11 – he left. It didn’t change a whole lot for me, as he’d already been gone or distant for a while.
I spent the first year of junior high in detention more days than not. I grew up in a bad neighborhood and I followed the profile and expectations of my peers. I was in the gifted and talented program and I was forced to choose between the bad behavior and staying in the program – it was the first time I had to make that choice. I chose the education, remembering what my parents had said about making it on my own.
It could have easily gone the other way, but it didn’t because a few people got through to me. I was involved in the Boy Scouts, and I had some positive role models who showed me a different path. I was “adopted” by the Brownmiller-Ruth family, who were middle-class enough to show that I could do better but not so high class that it wasn’t accessible to me. Mr. Harris and Dr. Ruth (from a different family than the Ruths just mentioned) at my junior high challenged me in the right way when other teachers wrote me off as one of the bad kids. Herein is where luck comes in, for were it not for any single one of them, I may have made a different choice.
I started working at a Boy Scout summer camp as soon as I was old enough. It got me away from the worst street in the worst part of town, put a little money in my pocket, and it was mostly a classless society. Without our parents’ status, we boys had to find another way of sorting ourselves. Given the values of the Scouts, it was largely merit- and personality-based. For the first time in my life, I had a clean slate to work from. After that first summer, I came back a new person. I went back every summer until I couldn’t.
I started doing better in school. At the same time, mom was starting to get better jobs, so we were slowly creeping up from “way poor” to just “poor.” I worked odd jobs with dad when I needed some money before I could get a job, but mom was adamant for a few years that I not have a job so I could stay focused on the Scouts, church, and school. I never cared much for the middle of the three, but that’s where my tribe was, so I went.
I got invited to be a part of some leadership initiative whose name I can’t remember through the public school system. It was a fun break from school, and I now know that I was there as an example of a poor minority who was a future leader. We would lead younger kids in a wide range of educational and social exercises, so we actually got some field practice in leading people I just met five minutes ago.
Those programs are funny in that, at the time, you don’t realize that people putting you in front of other people as an example molds you as much as it provides the people you’re a model for. But it had its desired effect – it was another environment and indicator that I could do and be more than a poor mixed kid.
All of a sudden, people stopped treating me like a poor mixed kid.
Oh Goody! Another Lifetime story!
While this sounds like the wind-up to the typical American dream story, that’s not the 3-act play I wish to convey. My point is to irritate that part of ourselves that lets us off the hook and points the fingers at other people’s circumstances as the easy reason why they’re making it and we’re not.
Truth be told, I could tell this story a different way. I could talk about how fortunate I was to learn self-sufficiency, how to overcome adversity, leadership, entrepreneurship, compassion, continual vigilance, social adaptability, and so on. That story is just as true.
What happens to us is what sets the story, but it’s not the essence of the story. That’s for us to decide. (Click to tweet – thanks!)