How did you really get there?

by Kristin on September 29, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by US Fish & Wildlife, Midwest

Human beings are confoundingly funny. And by “funny” I mean “contradictory.” We preach one thing then do another. We wish for X, complaining because we don’t have it, then we find a reason to complain about it after we do have it.

Take me, for example (since I’m the human being I’m most allowed to roll my eyes at). I say I’m an extrovert. I admit that I don’t like to tackle things alone. But boy-oh-boy am I proud when I do (or when I think I’ve done something on my own, or can at least present it that way).

What is that? What instinctive, human urge makes us lean in the direction of individualism, even though we seem wholly wired for community?

The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps lie

Yesterday, Jason read me this quote from Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. I admit, I wasn’t familiar with Ms. Warren until yesterday, so I can’t really get all promotional about her, but I LOVE what she has to say here. And I have a hunch it has so much to do with what ails us in America—from our economy and education system to our relationships and ability to find happiness.

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 seize everything at your factory, and hire someone 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 you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

It seems to me that if we buy this rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, look-what-I-did—why-don’t-you-get-off-your-butt-and-do-it-too attitude, we’re fooling ourselves. We’re not admitting all of the help we’ve received along the way, and all of the opportunities we’ve been given. We’re not recognizing that we did not do this alone any more than we could package all our talents, smarts and skills and put them into a kid in Papua New Guinea, then watch her accomplish the same thing “alone.”

Re-tracing our paths to success

The biggest problem with not recognizing the help and opportunities we’ve had, it seems, is what Warren touches on at the end of her quote: We fail to “pay it forward.” We don’t look out for those who don’t have the same opportunities. We don’t fight for justice. We become greedy and think that everything we’ve made is ours, because we earned it. We don’t owe anyone—we don’t even owe them the same basic opportunities and services we’ve had.

What if, instead, we each started by taking an accomplishment—just one big or small thing we’re proud of—and creating a map of everything that got us there. Every civil liberty and public service. Every positive trait your parents helped hone. Every educational opportunity and great teacher or mentor. Every encouraging word from a friend and serendipitous encounter with a stranger. Every lame part-time job that paid the bills while you were busy working toward a degree or chipping away at a dream. What if we just wrote it all down and took the time to let it sink in—nothing more?

You know what I think? I think if we completed that exercise, with honesty and thought, this world would be a very different place. What do you think?

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  • The Modern Gal

    The tendency to take credit for the work and contributions of others drives me crazy, but the failure to pay it forward makes me angry. It not only takes a village to raise children, it takes a village to BE a village. Yet, our society tends toward provencialism, because — like you said — the folks who have things feel they’ve earned them outright. We have to change this way of thinking by being more giving of ourselves.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    I love your sensible and thought-provoking post, Kristin.

    It is sensible because yrecommend as a one-time exercise something that should become the fabric of our thoughts. John Bunyan said, “A sensible thanksgiving for mercies received is a powerful prayer in the Spirit. It prevails with the Almighty.” I don’t think he spoke only of saying “thank you” to the Creator, but rather of an awareness that we receive His mercies through a thousand vessels. We should honor those in the world who have served us so faithfully and well.

    Yet your post is provocative in this respect. Sad experience has taught me that although Elizabeth Warren’s statement is true in every detail, such statements are usually the preface to a demand placed upon others. And while Justice can make such a claim on us, such demands in the hands of earthly authority are frequently misguided and sometimes even dangerous. I’d don’t know Elizabeth Warren at all. Perhaps she is different–I hope so! I just feel safer when such ideas flow from the fortunate soul who also has the good sense to pay it forward without being coerced.

  • Dan J

    Wonderful viewpoint!!!

    From being a part of a household, to a neighbor on the block, to a member of whichever social group, to a citizen of each town, county, state, or nation, to our entire planet – we are all members of many communities. None of us came into this world on our own, and none of us will get through our lives without impacting, and being impacted by, the lives of countless others. How sad must it be to be a selfish person or group when we’re all so connected in so many ways? Thanks for the reminder, Kristin! Time to pay some more forward!

  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    yes, please. gratefulness. other-awareness. a little humility and perspective. you write with wisdom, friend.

  • Jennifer

    You know what? I am in so much love with you right now. And Ms. Warren. What if, instead of arguing over who is responsible for what in our government, we had leaders who learned to shut the hell up every once in a while and listen. But I digress. One thing that I was able to really grasp as I (yes, i’m going to talk about running) trained for my half marathons is that even on my long distance runs I did alone, I was not alone. I was with a whole cloud of people who gave me advice, encouraged me, and cheered for me. I am where I am not by my own strength, but by my willingness (sometimes grudgingly) to accept help from someone else.

    Instead of teaching our babies to be “independent” let’s teach them to draw strength from others.

    This might be one of my all time favorite posts from you, Ms. Tennant. Exactly perfect.

  • Jennifer

    And Ray? Yes. Of course, the politician is going to say what her audience wants to hear. I’m as saddened by my cynicism as the next guy. Seems like people who want to affect change and get into government as their vehicle only get eaten by the machinations of our system. (Not complaining about our system, just saying). It’s a game. While the real, in the trenches work is what we agree Kristin is doing here and in her various communities.

    Now, then, it reminds of the women from my women’s college who would come to Friday night fellowship with the co-ed school to meet boys. Sure, they were there to meet boys. But, does the motive matter when they confront Christ? I don’t know. You’re smart. I like how you use words, Mr. H.

  • Shawn Smucker

    Thanks, Kristin, for a great post.

    Thanks, Ray, for an amazingly insightful and thoughtful comment.

  • Dan Moyle

    How did I get here…great question. Our individuality is our human flaw. It’s what led the first person to betray God, and ultimately separated us from Him. So we try to constantly do it alone, and take credit for it when it goes right (no matter who or Who helped us along the way). But we sure are quick to blame God when it doesn’t go right!

    I loved the thought provoking piece here KT. I would add that another part of the exercise is to look to God for what He and the Spirit did to help us in our successes as well.


  • Matt

    All I gotta’ say to this is: Preach it, sister! :-)

  • Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, I love your distinction between what drives you crazy and makes you angry. I can definitely relate! It’s one thing to be cocky and rude, but another thing entirely to disregard and take down others in the process. This wisdom is great, too: “…it takes a village to BE a village.”

    Ray, wouldn’t it be wonderful if that approach *was* the “fabric of our thoughts,” not just an exercise? Something to work toward, for sure. Regarding your second paragraph, about being “coerced,” I was really hoping I could write this post without making it political…and I was hoping people (especially those who don’t agree with me politically) could read it as such! It’s a tough thing to do! Maybe I know a bit too much about your personal take on politics and economics, so maybe I’m reading into this, but what I hear you saying is that the tax system is coercion. I would love to live in a world where people (lots of people—enough people) paid it forward out of love and a desire for justice, but sadly I’m pretty sure that’s not the world we live in. Do you agree? If so, in light of that, what do you propose?

    Dan, I love thinking about it this way: “we are all members of many communities.” We tend, I think, to construct our ideas about society/community either too narrowly or too broadly; both extremes allow for plenty of “outs” when it comes to responsibility. It seems the best prevention is to recognize and respect ALL of the different communities we’re a part of—of every size, format and root.

    suzannah, thank you. You write with poetry and such a keen, wise understanding.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    Wow, I’m busted. Leave it to the right-leaning dude to kill the buzz. :-)

    I totally agree with you in the heart of the matter–in that you and I are one. I will do your exercise, and perhaps that will chill me out a bit. Either way, I raise my publicly-funded, highway-delivered wine glass to you!

  • Kristin T.

    Jennifer, your comment made me think and laugh and even get some warm fuzzies. :) As you know, I’m not a runner, but I love this illustration of you running “alone:” “…I was not alone. I was with a whole cloud of people who gave me advice, encouraged me, and cheered for me.” Yes.

    Shawn, you’re welcome—thanks for reading!

    Dan, isn’t that the truth—we don’t want to take credit for everything, just the successful things. We’re individualistic when it serves our purposes, and we often look to God as a last resort (or after things really fall apart, when we want someone to blame). Thanks for your insight.

    Matt, I’m glad you like it, because when I get riled up about something it’s hard to NOT head down that road. :)

    Ray, thanks for being the “right-leaning dude” who is willing to come over and shed some light from a different angle, with wisdom and humor. You keep us all thinking, which is quite the opposite of a buzz-kill!

  • Deb

    Love the way you think!

    I can take this idea and run with it — and it really brings the familyhood of man together, thinking like this.

  • Joy F

    I just recently found your blog and have been enjoying it very much! The road idea was what began changing my mind about a lot of the social ideology to begin with. I was doing a month long teaching project in Cambodia five years ago when we passed a sign on an awful road to Siem Reap that said “Road provided for by the Kingdom of Thailand” and another “Road provided for by the People’s Republic of China” and it struck me how we drive over them everyday and never think of where they come from or who pays for them, and the convenience that they are, but take it for granted that they are there. Maybe sometimes you have to not have something for a while to appreciate what you do have? That there are countries out there that can’t afford their own roads. That the convenience of it is something that we did not build and do not think about, but that allow us to operate as a country – I can get a good job in the city and live in a comfortable house in the suburbs because the roads are good. My life is good because others have sacrificed. Great post!

  • Kristin T.

    Deb, thanks for stopping by and commenting—it’s good to “meet” you. I’m grateful to have a community here to learn and grow with. It just occurred to me that this is a perfect example of what I’m talking about in this post. I wrote the post, but first I was inspired by the ideas of others, and I continue to learn and grow through and with my readers. Such a beautiful process!

    Joy, welcome to this “halfway normal” place! I’m glad you feel at home here. :) Thanks for sharing your story about living in Cambodia. What a fascinating, important experience (that you’re obviously still learning from). Those big shifts in perspective can completely change how you understand the world, can’t they?