I raised the hackles of one of my best friends with what I considered a harmless remark about the fabulous job she found a few years ago. I said, “You were really lucky to get that job.”
We were talking on Skype, so I could see her bristle. I tripped over my wayward tongue in a rush to explain. “You were lucky the guy opened a company near you, that you’d met him and impressed him, that he thought of you for the job,” I said, but she wasn’t smiling.
“Gotta go,” she said, or something like that, and with a quick and cursory goodbye, she hit the little red button and left me scratching my head in befuddlement.
We’ve been friends for fifty years, and I thought she’d never surprise me with a viewpoint, but she had, and I was flummoxed as to why she’d reacted so viscerally. After all, luck is everything.
I searched my memory for clues. She’s liberal, though not as much of a bleeding heart as I am. We once skirmished over the death penalty. And I recalled another rumble over success. She’d always had faith that hard work guaranteed success in life. I believed otherwise.
At the time, I was teaching in the hood, and bearing witness to the devastation visited on some of my students. I taught students who’d seen the murder of a parent or other family member or had a parent or two in jail. I knew children who lived with a drug-addicted parent or a bewildered grandparent, and others who bounced from one family member to another with no real means of support.
Looking at the lives of my students, I lost my faith in the American Dream, in the notion that hard work equals success.
Though neither of them had a college degree, my parents valued education, provided a literature-rich environment, read to me, sent me to the library, talked to me about school, and expected me to excel. They were white, and middle class, and that made all the difference in my life.
Those of us who have had the excellent good luck to be born in the right country, to the right parents, have a much better chance of having a happy, fulfilling life, free of want and insecurity than others. But some of us tend to believe that because we worked hard and succeeded, anyone can. We deny the role of luck in our lives.
Wealthy and successful people should reflect on how their lives might have turned out if they hadn’t had so many advantages, if they’d been like one of my students, or like so many of the folks who just can’t get ahead, no matter how hard they work.
Margaret Thatcher once said, “I wasn’t lucky, I deserved it.” I’m sure lots of conservatives share this belief. Discounting the role of luck in life makes it easy to withhold relief and compassion from the poor, to denigrate and marginalize them.
I beg to differ with Margaret, Mitch, Rick, or any of the current crop of conservatives who, to quote Barry Switzer, onetime coach of the Dallas Cowboys, were born on third base and go through life thinking they’ve hit a triple.