I’ve long believed the surest sign of a good mind is an understanding that things could be another way without allowing for the possibility of your resistance, through the agencies of people and institutions and objects that do not encircle or overlap yours. If there is a person here you love that person could instead be at Dartmouth caressing another and unaware of your existence; if you are right-handed your arm could instead be broken as a young child and you a lefty as a result; if today your father is a good father or a bad one he could instead swerve to miss an animal and drown in a cold river six months ago. Instead of writing this tonight I could be asleep on a train that was not cancelled due to “service disruption.” What you hold to be most dear and most eternal is delicate and trembling. If you feel threatened by these ideas, ask yourself why. They are not new or radical. Ecclesiastes was written 2500 years ago. Maybe go read that instead of this, because this is surly and misanthropic and will yell at you and that is serene and numbing and will tell you nothing matters.
“You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way,” says Marlo Stanfield. I do not know what it is to be fucked against my will over and over by the other way. Neither do you, although if you’re a particular kind of person you might be able to trick yourself into thinking that you do. Again, for emphasis: no, you do not know the other way. What you know is the one way and, as a supplement, movies, which insist there is yet another, better one way available only to the beautiful while keeping the method for attaining this mirage vague enough to avoid any glaring counterfactuals. Suffice it to say that this better one way is a path on which your friends always pay attention when you’re talking and the shitty thing(s) that happened when you were a kid never happened and you are willing to “work hard” and subsequently “play hard” by making a great deal of purchases with the tender, both legal and social, that you are granted.
This, crucially, is not to claim that your life has not seen its share of ennui or poverty or horror. It is to claim that your presence at this university testifies to your ability to win. You won because you’re good at winning, and because people older than you told you to win, and because you couldn’t think of anything better to do—it’s possible you’re one of the few who derive non-transient meaning from winning. Regardless, to the victors go the spoils. From day one the administration has just about sprained its shoulder patting you on the back about it, reminding you of all the spoils you’ll enjoy as an alumnus and how much of that could maybe get kicked back to them.
A good liberal arts education, though, inflicts upon us one truth above arguably all others: everything—everything—has a context, and that goes for all the good old fashioned American winning you’ve been up to of late. The context is the game and the game has rules and the rules don’t sprout from nowhere; they’re made up and torn down by flesh and blood. You’ve understood since you were a child that a game is good only insofar as it’s fair. But the game you’re in the process of winning so splendidly isn’t fair at all—it’s rigged from the get-go, it crowns a few monumental winners amid an ocean of abject losers and, most absurdly, it lets the winners write the rules. You know this. You must, because you’re a winner, even if you don’t feel as if you
are; get enough people like you together with a common notion and you’ll find the rules will become what you tell them to become.
Let’s return to the central tenet, then: the money and intelligence that belongs to you could just as easily belong to another. The freedom that belongs to you could not belong to you. Do you think you’ve earned the money, the freedom? Do you think your parents have? Do you think, if you have been diligent or lackadaisical, you have done anything but ever-so-marginally load or unload an already profoundly loaded die? On some greatly suppressed level we feel we don’t deserve all we’ve been given any more
than others “deserve” to have nothing;
that the distinction between welfare at birth from abstract, impenetrable forces and welfare at middle age from more concrete ones is hollow. This knowledge lies at the core of greed and emptiness; it’s the reason men and women grow wealthy beyond their wildest imaginations and find themselves still grasping for more, unhappy, unquenched. Think of Private Ryan (and forgive the stale reference), who was handed his survival and told to “earn” the sacrifices made to ensure it—he had no idea how to, and neither do you. Life as you’ve come to understand is a war, and it’s zero-sum, and many have died and continue to die right this instant in the metaphorical trenches so that people like you and me can be the war’s winners, enjoy the war’s aforementioned spoils. But nagging at any reasonably humane psyche is an inkling that most of this winning and losing is randomized. Y’all know the Greek creation myth? In the beginning there was only Chaos, autogenic and all encompassing, and it’s been in charge ever since.
The “American experiment” has its roots in a philosophy of constant change, in a belief that things do not always have to be the way they are at present. We’re still proud of ourselves for coming up with it. And yet: how perverted the ideal was from the beginning, and remains today. The evidence, as it so often does, just as Orwell told us it would, hides in the language, in the words we say and how we say them. “Entitlement,” when spoken out loud, is sneered. You with the house in the Hamptons appraised at 8.2 million, with the 1,500 acres in Virginia, with the weekend trips to Hawaii, the sons and daughters descended from Eurasian oil barons or plantation owners or royalty or CEOs or even first-generation immigrants who worked hard, caught a few breaks, Made It In America and sent you here: what is it you’re entitled to? He who ruins his back or soul working for you for $10.50 an hour and wants nothing for himself, whose supreme want is for his unborn son to have a little more than he did: when that son is born with one too few or too many chromosomes, what is he entitled to? Are they the same or are they different and, if the latter, why? Why? It’s a common and understandable and, often enough, accurate practice to map various dialectics onto that question—racial, sexual, socioeco
nomic. They’re beside the point. They’re
too narrow. Straight white male privilege has no ultimate bearing on what it is I’m after here, even though it cannot be extricated from the scene, because race, gender and preference are sub-categories and I want to talk about the whole sad, throbbing mess altogether.
There is a quote I hate—George Bernard Shaw is responsible for it—which reads: “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” What little use it gets today is as a cudgel against those who “refuse” to take responsibility for their own destinies, aren’t “willing” to do what’s necessary. Bernard Shaw was a critic and a playwright and a eugenicist and a Nobel Prize winner, but most relevantly he was a Socialist through and through—the quotation is satire. More than a century later the words are so starkly in line with the insidious myth we continue to tell ourselves about success, they might as well have been written in earnest.
Reflect on a seven-year-old starving or unclothed or unsheltered somewhere in this bloated country, a country wealthy enough to make each of its citizens and non-citizens alike comfortable many times over. Reflect on the severely autistic, paraplegics, victims of just and unjust wars, the sick and helpless. Reflect on the wrongfully and rightfully incarcerated, stabbing and sodomizing one another, a good portion of them guilty of no more than possession of drugs many here partake in freely and without fear. These men and women aren’t as abstract as the dying in Africa or the exploited in Asia—they are here, among us, in our home, and as such require from us very little skill as empathizers. What differentiates you from them? What have you done that put you here instead of there? Look at the title of this article. That’s one widespread answer to the question. If you are an atheist, go ahead and replace that divine honorific with whatever it is you worship. You do worship something: probably it’s Education, or Work Ethic, or the Market, or a set of Morals. Probably it’s something you feel you’re in direct control of—if not, probably it’s something you feel is faultless, something you know will reward followers (among which you count yourself) and punish non-believers, heretics, apostates. For what it’s worth, if I were to recover one from the depths of my ego it would probably be something like Stability or Strength. Consider it an antidote to the oceans of negation surrounding and within you; try to tell yourself who and why you are instead of who you are not. Write it down.
If there isn’t the slightest measure of doubt within you about the validity of what you’ve written (I know you haven’t written anything, but what fun we’re having pretending!) then you are lost. Your success has been contingent on vast cosmic luck and a comparatively infinitesimal amount of effort. I’m sorry. Please burn that paper, or throw it away. It’s trash. To do so is the first step toward recognition that although we all suffer in our meaningful ways there are many whose suffering we cannot understand or even fathom so colossal and arbitrary is it and this is the way things are but not, not, not the way things have to be. The good news being: we’re all lucky enough to have the chance to change them.