I wrote my last post, and I went off to hang laundry, and I got to thinking that it sounded wrong to me – that I made the post sound too much like I was talking about far away people who are not me. And that bothers me. So I thought I’d stop what I was going for a minute and correct that.
I grew up mostly in a town with strong, strong class divisions. There was a wealthy section (really wealthy) in Beverly (Bevery Hills is actually named after the wealthy section of Beverly and a much more working class section. Guess which side I lived on?
And when I was in middle school, going to the school that had most of the working class kids, I was tracked in among the very bright, college bound, lots of potential kids. And by the time I got to high school, where they merged the working class bright kids with the wealthy bright kids and edited some out, most of those very bright kids from my side of the tracks (literally) weren’t in the top tier, the ones headed to any college but the community ones or maybe UMass. It wasn’t because they got less smart – they were still incredibly bright and talented. But in some cases, they didn’t have parents to advocate for them to keep them “on track” and in some cases, they fucked up. Maybe because they were fuckups, or maybe because the pressure of being seperated out from the people in your neighborhood or your class was hard.
I found it so – my family has a lot of education but was economically struggling most of my childhood, and lived mostly in working class neighborhoods growing up. We tended to have much more education than our neighbors, but the same economic problems. Most of my family worked in human services, teaching or doing social work or doing other low-paying but slightly higher status jobs than the truck drivers and fishermen and plumbers who owned the houses around us. And the lure of the neighborhood, and of the class culture around us was strong – these were the kids we played with and our friends.
It was hard being separated out from them – hard because other kids made it hard, of course, and made you pay a price, and hard for reasons far too complicated to articulate when you are kid, reasons of class and culture and belonging that I still struggle to fully articulate. I never made it to Professor, in part, I think, because I never could see myself as a Professor, never could imagine myself in that world, with all of its class and cultural connotations. I know some people who crossed that boundary quite successfully, but I wasn’t one of them.
I was a fuckup myself, so long that I’m embarrassed to tell y’all – it isn’t like it stopped in high school. I was lucky – I was bright and articulate enough that teachers let me go, gave me decent grades I didn’t deserve, helped me explain my screw ups enough to get into good colleges and get enough scholarship money to go. I was lucky in college and graduate school – good teachers thought I was worth helping even when I fucked up again and again. I got the education and the critical thinking skills I have because all along in the process, people gave me more credit and help than I deserved. Professors gave me books, helped me get grants, and put up with the fact that I was often deeply ambivalent about the work I was doing and my place in it, and that that ambivalence often played out badly, for reasons I didn’t understand. And they forgave me because they thought I was worth forgiving – and I’d like to think that’s true of almost everyone, that it was true of the people who didn’t get that extra boost. They were worth forgiving too – they just never found anyone to do it.
Had I had just a little less grace from other people, just a little less kindness, just a little less capacity to pull things out at the last minute, had others gotten a tiny bit more frustrated with me, I doubt I would be writing this now. Or perhaps I would, but as a different person, from a wholly different set of experiences. One of my high school teachers pulled me aside when I was a freshman, and I was failing his class – simply because I wasn’t doing the work. He told me he was going to pass me anyway, and that he didn’t expect gratitude, but he did expect me to do what it takes to get of our town and go do something else. It is, of course, trite beyond bearing to say “we have to get out of this town, it will destroy us” but sometimes there’s some truth in trite beyond bearing. The thing is, I was boosted, all the way, to getting to the point where I could understand energy issues, to get to the point where I could have a life in which I had time and energy and understanding to cut back my consumption, above all, to a point where I could see the wider world from a different perspective. Some of it was my doing, of course. And some of it was the grace and mercy of others.
So another answer to the question of why I feel sorry for people who consumed too much and screwed up their own finances is this – I could easily be them. I made stupid mistake after stupid mistake in my life, and generally speaking, I wasn’t punished for them. People wanted to help me and did. I usually didn’t get justice – I got mercy. I understand the temptation of justice, and the sense that one doesn’t have energy to care about the sufferings of the fortunate – and I also understand that sometimes perfect justice doesn’t get you better results than a more merciful approach. I’m guilty of asking for too much justice myself, and forgetting that I too got the benefits of mercy – and that I can’t see that I’d be more useful to the world if I’d gotten only what I really deserved.
I guess that’s why as the energy crisis explodes on the rest of us, I’d like to advocate for mercy for those who don’t yet fully understand. Maybe it won’t be forthcoming in the world of creditors or government support, but there’s no reason for the rest of us to dispense justice. By all means, feel sorriest for those who have the least. But sympathy and kindness are not small things to be rationed out by droppers, only to those perfectly deserving – they should be ladled out and poured from buckets and flow out of us like rivers. Any scarcity of kindness is artificial – and far too many things are growing scarce for us to have artificial shortages of generosity.