The mid-size publishing company where I work has an internal website, and on that internal website is a variety of information and updates, and the cafeteria menu for the day and the Quote of the Day, an inspirational line by some historic or well-known figure. Actually, it’s the Quote of the Page Refresh, but no one seems to notice or mind. These quotes are mostly about following your dreams, working hard, success being a journey, the usual. Apparently these quotes make some people want to do a better job at their job at a mid-sized publishing company. On me, they either have no effect, or they make me want to immediately quit my job at the mid-sized publishing company and go do something heroic, or they make me mutter lightly at the person the quote is attributed to. I am particularly bitter lately at anyone who seemed to have “Man of Letters” available to him as a job option.
Recently there was a quote from an Olympic gold medalist along the lines of “I’ve learned that if you work hard and persevere, your dreams will come true.” It occurred to me suddenly—of course that is what she learned. That’s what happened to her. When we ask a person who has experienced success to describe her world view, we tend to assume that the success was caused by the world view, not that the world view was caused by the success. Some minimal reflection should remind us that the reverse may be truer. No one ever asks the person who trained as hard her whole life and missed making the Olympic team twice what she has learned about life, though it might be more instructive.
If you work hard, good things will come to you. If you are patient and dedicated and focus your efforts, you will achieve great things. This is the promise that keeps many of us going, and on some level that keeps me going. It is sometimes true. At the same time it is also one of the most insidious lies.
A few weeks ago, congressional Republicans voted to make deep cuts to food stamp programs, and to tie benefits to poor people getting jobs. This is an example of “if you work hard, you will make it” carried to its most blind, simplistic conclusion. The only reason someone is poor must be that he or she is lazy, and if we can make that person work hard, they will not be poor anymore. Most of us can see the many flaws in this argument, but it is an argument that is potent for those who buy in to conservative social policy in this country. The roots of its potency are deeply personal.
I was at an Occupy demonstration a year ago, offering fliers to people walking to a college football game. More than one middle-aged man sneered at me “Get a job.” This was very funny, since I do have a 9-5 desk job, and it made me wonder where these men’s hatred was seeping from, and how they clung to a world view that made them think that “get a job” was a viable solution to my discontent, despite all evidence to the contrary. Here were well-off older men who had probably held jobs of some kind for thirty years, who believed and desperately needed to believe that they had what they had because they had worked hard. And if this was true they could believe that they deserved everything that they had. To suggest that this system was not predictable and merit-based was to undercut their narrative of their own lives and their own morality. There was a news story this week that reveals another striking example. When the wealthy president of the McDonald’s corporation was caught off guard by a worker who said she still made $8.25 an hour after working at McDonald’s for ten years, he blurted out that he had been there for forty years (www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/10/11/232077122/mcdonalds-president-was-caught-off-guard-by-low-wage-single-mom). In a moment caught off guard, he could not understand why working for McDonald’s for forty years did not have the same results for other people as it had for him. The reasons why are obvious on some reflection, but deep down that is not the story the rich tell themselves.
In the same week that the Republicans were voting to cut food stamps, I laid awake in bed, as I often do, wondering if I could have done something differently with the years since I finished graduate school. I’ve never aimed for large financial success, but I want other things. I want recognition for my writing; I want to make some meaningful contribution to the world. And somewhere underneath everything is a National Honor Society student who believes that if you work hard enough, good things will happen. And that if they don’t happen, it is because I did something wrong. The inspirational quotes are hard to shake out of your ears. And if we could shake them, there’s the frightening reality that what happens to us is more arbitrary than we care to contemplate, more driven by chance, and that we will always be partly helpless when it comes to the course of our lives. That’s something no one wants to admit.