There’s a quote from Elizabeth Warren that has been making the rounds today, and I have to say, it resonates with my own sense of history. Indeed, it reminds me of an old Teddy Roosevelt stemwinder:
There is nobody in this nation who got rich on his own. Nobody.
You built a factory out there– good for you! But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.
You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come, and sieze everything in your factory and [have to] protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look– you built a factory, and it turned into something terrific or a great idea– God bless! Keep a big hunk of it!
But part of the underlying social contract is that you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Politics aside, I think this is a truth that we should all be more conscious of. In the current divisive political environment, everyone seems to be trying to make his neighbor into the enemy. We could all use a refresher in the way the social contract works– and a reminder of how to be a little bit more human.
There’s a reason that Horatio Alger and Charles Dickens wrote about orphans. There’s nothing more terrifying– nothing more tragic– than seeing someone adrift, without a social safety net, forced to find their own way. We’re simply not equipped for it. The social fabric is the only reason any of us survive. Humans are weak creatures– we don’t have sharp teeth, or claws, or even protective fur. Our only strength comes from our empathy, our language, and our ability to work together.
I’m incredibly lucky. If you’re reading this, you are too.
I’m 32, I have a history of health problems, I’m unemployed. And I’m INCREDIBLY lucky. I’m luckier than any one person deserves to be. I’m lucky because I have people. People who care about me. Not all of those people agree with me politically, or even about my taste in food or music. But they’re my people. We have a mutual investment in one another.
Because I have people, I still have a roof over my head, I still have health insurance, and– even though it’s easy to lose sight of it– I still have a faith that SOMETHING will come my way. Not because I deserve it. But because all the people who have helped and supported me do. Life will work out. Because I have people.
America has gone through ten really rough years. We have seen ten years of being terrified, of losing ground, of feeling like we’re losing control. Domestically and internationally, things seem to just keep getting more uncertain. We’ve had to question some really fundamental faiths and assumptions. And that’s really hard.
This has led to a shift in the nation. Many, in the face of all this, have come to look at their place in life and to regard it as earned, as an accomplishment. It’s reassuring, when faced with uncertainty, to look at the world and proclaim that we got where we are because we deserve it– and that those who may have fell behind did so because they did not.
But this is a dangerous delusion. Nobody in this world got where they did alone. It is cynical and selfish and hurtful to say otherwise. Our strength lies in our ability to open up to our fellow human beings, to inspire empathy, compassion, and support. Even Ragged Dick and Oliver Twist got ahead in this manner– they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, yes, but they did it by opening up to others, by caring about those that cared about them, and helping those that needed it.
The internet has an amazing ability to build social ties, to help us all find our people, to have meaningful conversations, to support one another… To make the world better for one another. But so often, it’s used as an echo chamber where we just work up our venom for those that don’t immediately agree with us. The current cycle in the government, pumped up on a 24-hour news cycle and the instant connectivity of electronic communications does the same.
But these are our lesser instincts, our worst aspects.
The most sacred, amazing, special thing about mankind– the thing that makes us human– is our ability to relate, to care, to help. We need to remember this, on a real instinctual level, or we’re all doomed to reap what we sow.
You are not self-reliant. You are not a self-made-man. You got where you did by caring about others, and by others caring about you. Without others, we would all be lost in an uncaring wilderness, a victim of the worst manifestations of anarchy.
You have people. People have helped you. This is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to celebrate. But it’s also time to pay it forward.
I hope this isn’t misconstrued as propaganda. We have some tough choices coming up in next year’s election, and frankly, I find myself honestly undecided for the first time in my memory.
My only point is this: let’s just move forward, into the next year, actually caring about and considering our fellow men. Let’s stop letting kneejerk politics and ideology obscure the fact that we’re all in this together, that the ties that bind us are more complex and multivalent than are dreamt of in our politics. Let’s treat one another as fellow humans, and admit that one point or another, we could all use a hand up.
And at some point, we’ve all gotten one.