“Don’t be so arrogant; you’re not as almighty as you think.”
That is what my better self tells me, and my better self is always right. I am not solely responsible for my successes or my failures. Like all of us, I am a complicated amalgam of my heritage and efforts.
Let me explain. Luck was with me when I was born. I am an American white male in good health and respectable intelligence, graced with parents who worked hard and remained married. In other words, my heritage was adequately, some would say notably, rich. As such, I am privileged. Yes, there are those who are more privileged than I but only in number, not in kind.
Millions of others are not so lucky and are handicapped by their gender (or gender identity), race, social/economic standing, and physical/mental capacities. They are the underprivileged.
The other half of the formula is effort. Nurtured by my privileged status, I have worked hard. I have reaped a university education, earned a decent living, and pursued my passion for the arts.
Conversely, when heritage is meager, the story is likely to become more strident. Many struggle to find their way. They lack initiative and are easily distracted or derailed. Sometimes, the promise of success is completely extinguished.
Here is my point. Our success is not solely a product of our effort, our self-governance. It is the product of heritage and effort.
Do not be so quick to condemn the misnamed slackers. You do not know the steepness of their climb. For when the slope is arduous, effort tends to dwindle and, with time, stall and arrest. For example, it is easy to study when the desk lamp is bright, the room is warm, and the belly is full. It is not nearly so effortless when deprived of these essentials.
There are those who overcome their impoverished heritage, who, despite the odds, generate the will to break through the barriers and elevate themselves to positions of influence (although, too often, lagging respect). Those people are the true heroes. (In contrast, I am no hero. My life has been entirely too easy.) Such luminaries include Stephen Hawking, Thomas Edison, Jesse Owens, Helen Keller, Fredrick Douglas, Victor Frankl, and, most recently, the Pakistani schoolgirl advocate for human rights Malala Yousafzai. Although these people are inspiring, they are uncommon exceptions. Our 2.2 million American prisoners—56% Black or Hispanic—are more representative of the systemic interplay between heritage and effort.
Can we do this? Can we begin to honor the people who are battling to beat the odds? And can we stop fawning over the excessively privileged, especially those who merrily coast on the silken advantages of their heritage? They are no heroes; they are only the fabulously fortunate.