All my life I’ve struggled and failed to correct the same set of character flaws. And by all my life I mean since I can remember and I can remember back to when I was two. My earliest memories are tinged with guilt and shame and self-reproach as they are memories of me demonstrating one or the other or some or all of these flaws.
I lose myself in daydreams when I should be dealing with hard realities. I put off decisions and taking action until the very last second. Micawber-like I have a tendency to believe that “something will turn up.” I despair before I even begin. If I don’t despair, I get angry. I get angry regardless. Routinely, my first reaction to a new problem is to blow my stack. I have a habit when I feeling I’m not measuring up of telling people what I think they want to hear. I have a habit of feeling I’m not measuring up. I regularly, reflexively, take my eye off the ball. Instead of stick-to-it-tiveness, I obsess. When I should step back and say “Good enough for government work” I turn perfectionist. When I need to be a perfectionist, I become a bored civil servant with tenure.
I rely too much on my brains and my wits, on my talents and abilities, and on my stores of energy, knowing that no one is as smart they need to be all the time, talents and abilities will regularly fail you, and there’s a good chance I will run out of gas just at the point when I need to floor it.
These character flaws---bad habits, weaknesses, vices---are so rooted in me that it’s as well to call them character traits. They are me or, at least, part of the essential me. They define me to myself, which is another bad habit, weakness, flaw, or even a vice. Thinking the worst of myself.
Sympathetic but worried friends have suggested that I show signs of ADD. Others think I suffer from mild but frequent bouts of depression. My grandmother said that what I was went with my being a writer. A dreamer, she called me, like her beloved big brother George, which comforted me, because it made me feel loved and special to her, and scared the daylights out of me. Life did not go well for George.
My own diagnosis is that I am weak and weak-willed and lazy. Not physically lazy, but spiritually. I do not practice the virtue of diligence, which doesn’t have anything to do with physical or mental labor; it’s the virtue of self-command. Or to put it another more damning way, I indulge the vice of sloth which means not that you loaf and do nothing all day but that you fail to exercise virtues like diligence. It works like this. No one is just vain or wrathful or gluttonous or envious or lustful or greedy without also being slothful. No one is merciful, charitable, honest, temperate, or patient, without also being diligent.
That’s what the nuns said, at any rate.
But however I analyze me or indict me, these traits have yet to prove fatal. They’ve gotten me into difficulties, caused me needless worry and stress. They’ve had me rushing to the post office to get something mailed at the last minute, staying up late or getting up early to meet deadlines on projects I should have and could have finished days before, paying late fees and library fines I shouldn’t have incurred, scrambling to rearrange my schedule to be somewhere or do something or see someone I could easily have been, done, or seen already if I’d stayed on top of things, making awkward apologies and half-assed excuses, feeling guilty or stupid or ashamed or regretful or any combination of those and unable to take pleasure or pride in things that have worked out well in the end or in jobs that were actually well done when all was said and done.
There have been occasions when they got me into real trouble. And there were a few times in my late teens and early twenties when they came close to ruining my life and one time when they very nearly did.
I’d like to say the reason I escaped, survived, and even came out of things smelling like a rose is I have other, compensating virtues and strengths, and I do have a few of those and sometimes I am diligent about bringing them to bear. And I could say that it’s because I have a network of loyal and caring friends willing to help out in a pinch with aid, comfort, and sound advice and a loving and supportive family, especially a strong, smart, competent, determined, and forgiving father. But the real reason that I was able to right my own ship or that my family and friends could come to the rescue was that we are all middle class.
This is what the American middle class life does for those lucky enough to be part of it. It offers recourse when you fuck up. In fact, built into the system is the idea that everybody will fuck up now and then and, consequently, built into the system, is help for you when you do.
For middle class fuckups, middle class families and friends offer moral support and advice but they also have the ability to do things on your behalf. They know people. They know how the system works from inside. They can explain things. They have credibility. They have a degree of authority. They have money or access to it. If worse comes to worst, they can offer places to stay, cars to borrow, leads for jobs and references to go with them. They can recommend a good doctor or a good lawyer. They might even be good doctors and lawyers.
And it’s not just that you have support from family and friends, the system itself is designed to help. There are options. There are people behind the desks or at the other end of the line who are willing to “understand.” Cops wave you on. Judges know how it can be. Teachers believe you didn’t mean it. Bosses say don’t let it happen again.
It’d take another post or series of posts to get into all the benefits of being middle class in America and the necessity of maintaining a strong middle class and providing more opportunities for more people to join the middle class and to detail the many threats today to the middle class. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m going to mention only one of those threats, although it may be the one from which many of the others arise: the poison of Libertarianism.
The American middle class has been invaded from within, particularly at its upper reaches, by people, mostly men, who have enjoyed all their lives the benefits of having been born and raised middle class but who refuse to admit those benefits exist. What looks to everyone else like helpful features of the system are to them their just rewards for lives of hard work and virtue. All the support structures they actually depend on are invisible to them and good roads, good schools, and safe neighborhoods come about by magic or by their own devising and deserving, which is the same as saying by magic. They owe none of it to nobody but themselves. They are responsible to and for nobody but themselves. If you don’t have what they have, it’s because you haven’t worked for it, you haven’t earned it, you haven’t deserved it, too bad then for you, it’s your own fault and no concern of theirs.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately for several reasons, two of which you can probably guess. But one of them is that I’ve been reading A Chance to Win: Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City by journalist Jonathan Schuppe. It’s about Rodney Mason, a former drug dealer in Newark, New Jersey, confined to a wheelchair by a paralyzing bullet wound---ironically not a consequence of his drug dealing but of a romantic triangle---who decided to make amends for his past, give his present some meaning, and do some kids some good that might help them resist the temptations he’d failed to resist himself by forming and coaching a little league baseball team.
This was far, far from as easy as it might sound, because besides the problem of acquiring (that is buying) equipment and finding a field to play on (one magically appeared. Magically if you’re of a libertarian mind. The county executive came through with the money to fix up a neglected field.), a functioning little league needs not just players but a critical mass of players’ parents with the time and commitment and the money to keep the league going through an entire season, a very tall order for a neighborhood where fathers were often absent and mothers worked full-time and often two jobs.
The whole plan almost fell apart at the start because despite Mason’s strength of will, his determination, his commitment, and his real talents and abilities as a coach. There was no way he could do it all on his own as it looked as he would have to and as no middle class parents would have to do or even have to think about having to do if they set out to form an entire little league, never mind field a single team.
A Chance to Win got me thinking about how it would have been for me if I’d been born and raised in Newark when it was one of the poorest, most economically hollowed out, most corrupt, most crime-ridden and violent cities in the United States. And I’ve come to a conclusion.
With my faults, flaws, weaknesses, and vices and without my middle class benefits and supports, I wouldn’t have made it through my teens, let alone my twenties.
I’m reading the stories of Mason and his friends and the young men he grew up with and ran with, of the kids on his team and their families and neighbors, of the many sorts and conditions who came and went in their lives, and the same phrase keeps repeating in my head.
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
I mean by that what I’ve always meant by that, even when I believed in God. “Boy, did I get lucky!”
I used to think that’s what everybody who said it meant.
Over time, I’ve learned that’s not the case.
For a lot of people it isn’t another way of saying “Phew!”
It isn’t a warning that luck is capricious and indifferent and has a way of running out. It isn’t a reminder to be merciful, tolerant, understanding, compassionate, and helpful to the unlucky.
It’s a way of saying “Aren’t I special?” and an excuse to add “And I guess that means God has decided you aren’t so I’m under no obligation to treat you as special. I can treat you just as God has treated you, as undeserving.”
For them it’s the Pharisee’s boastful prayer at the front of the temple: “Thank you, dear Lord, for not making me like them.”
Basically, it’s the secularized version of Libertarianism and the expression of a belief in a God who for reasons flattering to themselves decides to favor some with his grace and kick everybody else to the curb.
I don’t know why any decent person would worship such a capricious and childishly favorites-playing demon.
This is a God who says:
Listen up, here's how it’s going to go today. See her, the hardworking nurse on her way to her job in the pediatric oncology department at the public hospital, who takes good care of her family, goes to church every Sunday, and volunteers what little time free time she has at the food bank? She’s going to push a small child out of the way of an oncoming bus and save his life, but…
The bus is going to hit her and kill her on the spot.
And see that group of people on a corner on the other side of town, mostly decent, well-meaning, law-abiding folks, waiting like good citizens for the light to change so they can cross the street? Another bus is going to come along and jump the curb because I’ve decided the driver’s going to have a mild heart attack and it’ll plow into the bunch of them. Here’s the good news. None of them will die. Here’s the bad news. All but one of them will sustain injuries, some severe, some minor, but one will be hurt so badly he’ll be in the hospital for months, and of course he’s the one with no insurance. He’ll lose his job and his home. Meanwhile, that one who wasn’t injured? He’ll be thrown across the sidewalk and through a store window and land on the owner’s cat and neither he nor the cat will suffer a bruise or a scratch, just because I think that’ll be funny.
On top of that, the stories on the evening news will be all about that guy and the cat with barely a mention of the driver or the other people who got hit.
Now, here’s the real kicker.
You, the greedy, conniving, thieving hedge fund manager, who steals from his clients and cheats on his wife and who’s plotting to run your best friend and partner out of the firm, who’s texting as you're’ strolling along, not looking where you’re going and forcing everyone else to get out of your way, listening to the music on your iPhone, oblivious to everything and everyone around you except that homeless guy you’re sneering at and telling to get a job, you’re walking out into the street without looking and into the path of yet another bus.
But guess what?
That driver will see you in time to stop!
And you know how you’ll react when that scared and angry driver blows her horn and shouts as if you can hear her through the windshield, “Watch where you’re going, you moron!” You won’t wave an apology. You won’t shout back that you’re sorry or thankful that she was able to stop her bus before she mowed you down. You’ll give her the finger and then go along your merry way.
This is how it goes because you have earned my grace and the others didn’t. And what do you owe me for this? Do I except you to use the life I’ve given you to help others? Do I demand you change your ways? Of course not. Like I said, you’ve earned this just for being you. You can go on being the greedy, thieving, cheating, back-stabbing bastard you’ve always been and I will continue to reward you with a long, healthy, prosperous life.
See you in church.