Just before Christmas, I asked a friend if she could push our lunch back 30 minutes so I could finish writing some recommendation letters. Over lunch, we talked about how we imagine “boundaries” of work, volunteering, family and personal life. Less a bitch-and-moan session than trying to figure it out. She brought up the letters that had delayed our lunch:
“It’s not really your job, anymore, is it?”
Almost too quickly I told her I wanted to write them.
But as I said it, I wasn’t sure. After leaving the university seven months ago, I still get requests from some of my former students. Not a constant flow, but each request includes multiple graduate program links to different portals, questions and the letters that take thought and time.
So when she added, “You are really kind to do that!” I decided to examine my motives. Writing to faceless selection committees is not something I look forward to. Sure, I want to be kind. Acts of kindness have myriad benefits. But kindness wasn’t the primary motivator, or was it?
No One Does It Alone
One of my “doable” resolutions is to complete Ryan Holiday’s 14-Day Stoic Challenge. In his Day 8 audio file, Holiday asks us to reflect on those whose shoulders we’ve stood on. Specific individuals who have informed, assisted, influenced or sacrificed to help each of us do what we do, to be who we are.
Holiday references Marcus Aurelius and I am glad to find Meditations within reach instead of boxed up in storage or loaned out. Within the first few pages of Debts and Gratitudes, Aurelius assigns unique and specific virtues to friends, family, teachers, and statesmen (several of whom were not revered by as virtuous, according to the translator). Debts and Gratitudes feels like a chapbook of epitaphs, a collection of psalms in praise of the perfection within imperfect people.
Following the prompt, I can recall people’s generosity (if not their names) at different stages of my life. Every degree, job, place I’ve lived, childcare provider, doctor, means of transportation, and social network happened through the help of others. Lots of others.
A few remain strangers, some I’ve lost touch with or forgotten their names, several are dead, but the rest I plan to contact and thank this year.
Idolizing the Individual: Fantasies and Fallacies
Horatio Alger’s late-19th century fiction about boys pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to rise out of poverty and into plenty continues to resonate (like Disney stories) throughout American culture. We adore the single hero. We still yearn for the simplistic cause-effect between hard work and the deserved payoff.
DREAM BIG! If you want it badly enough and work hard enough, YOU WILL MAKE IT! (Just pull up on them bootstraps, boys and girls.)
The assumption that everyone owns boots or has access to boots that fit their feet is an obvious fallacy. If success were a matter of dreams, dogged determination and sleep deprivation, America would be an equal-opportunity wonderland. (But that argument is best left to another article or three.)
And even if we lived in a world of right-sized boots beside every bed (and a chicken in every pot), we still couldn’t succeed or survive alone.
An Invitation to Ditch the Boots and Look Down
Just days ago, writing an imagined autobiography filled with tales of rugged individualism may have appealed to me. I’d tell you about a grad student living loan-to-loan, long hours and the leanness and lack of everything. And further back, a first-generation college student whose obsessive-compulsive disorder intensified with anxiety, triggered by uncertainty. A steady oversupply of not knowing what the hell I was doing — especially my freshman year.
But now I remember who sustained me. My parents, their cards crammed into a tiny mail slot like paper lifelines; their unwavering willingness to come fetch me when I needed home. My dear Aunt Ann, who’d completed college and married my uncle, sent luxuriously long and thoughtful letters, sometimes a check tucked between pages of her elegant stationery. My virtuous and indecent roommates, the weird but provocative philosophy guy, the muckrakers from whom I learned as much about community as I learned about good journalism.
I estimate at least 80 letters of support have been written on my behalf; hundreds of introductions, phone calls, and deeds done in the service of me, whose welfare was not part of anyone’s job.
Whether our delusions of self-making are due to cultural individualism, Calvinism, a rise in narcissism or just being human doesn’t really matter. I only invite you to take off the boots (real or imagined) and consider:
The mentor, the tough teacher, the lunch lady who made sure you ate every day, your friend’s aunt who took the time to tell you about her adventures in Katmandu, LeVar Burton’s soothing narration after school.
We are helped, lifted and assisted by other people.
Who has been part of your story? Whose story can you help write today?
Maybe the only motive that matters is one we already know by heart: We are all part of the same story.