As Luck Would Have It

“Several studies suggest that when we feel gratitude we’re more generous to strangers. When we’re reminded of luck’s importance, we’re more likely to plow some of our own good fortune back into the common good. But, we underplay luck. Because we can recall our own struggles far better than the fateful but fuzzy role of chance. And because the very idea corrodes our faith in free will. But mostly because we’re deeply invested in our own autobiographies.

Take me. My parents went broke a couple of times. Once we had to put all our stuff on the lawn to be auctioned. I went to college almost totally on aid. But I always knew I was going to college. Even on nights when dinner was leftover Kentucky fried chicken I brought home from the job. I knew that this was temporary. So I can say, Wow, I’m really self-made. But I know I’m not. Sure, I always kind of knew I was lucky, but not until working on this series did I really begin to understand what that meant.

Hard work is real. But bootstraps are bunk, and social mobility, a myth. Unless a nation chooses to build the infrastructure, the roads on which a person can move upward, you pretty much can’t get there from here.

—Brooke Gladstone, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myth,” On the Media podcast

harli-martenIf you’re not listening to On the Media’s series on poverty in America, you’re missing out on investigative journalism at its most vital.

I’ve written previously about the stories we tell ourselves.

But one of the most insidious stories we hold dear in America is that of the self-made success story. It infiltrates conversations about class, about gender, and yes, conversations about race.

Insidious because to insist that we have earned what we have is to imply that those without have earned what they have not. Is to pass judgement, however unconsciously. Is to be blind to the many ways chance plays a hand in each of our lives.

My life has been financially precarious off and on since I had children. There have been tradeoffs, but, because I’ve always nurtured low expectations, they’ve never noticed the lack. No family vacations, for instance, no Disney World. But we have enough. And I know, no matter what, we’ll always have somewhere to turn if tragedy strikes. Even on the worst days I know I’m lucky — to be healthy, to have kids who are healthy, to have a roof over our heads and rewarding work.

Whether you’re just getting by, i.e., what they call “stable poverty,” or if you’re at a happy place in your life where money isn’t a concern, tune in to this series.

Unless we can face the role luck has in all our lives, for good and ill, we will never recognize that the poor are no different from any one of us, and no less worthy of our compassion. To believe otherwise betrays a larger poverty, of mind and spirit.

 

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