As I was saying, we all have ways in which other people can look at our lives and say, “Why can’t she see how obviously she’s messing up?” I have mine.
One of them is doing things to keep myself from making much money. Although I deeply admire people who’ve accumulated a pragmatic amount of wealth and can be happy, prudent, and generous with it, I have a top beyond which I’m not comfortable going. It’s my ceiling. And it’s low.
I do things like give away my highest-paying gigs on an issue of principle. Or orneriness or whatever less charitable names you want to call it (last year leaving J.P.F.O., earlier this year, handing my S.W.A.T. column off to Kurt Hofmann, formerly of J.P.F.O.)
One faithful correspondent chided me for the S.W.A.T. swap. But he thinks I did it for Kurt, which isn’t true. I was glad to see a rising talent and nice guy like Kurt get the gig, but I did it for me.
And I started down this road because I believed I’d rather be poor and marginal than finance the tyranny of the federal government. Even once I “came in from the cold” I kept income low so I’d pay only minimally. That’s where I remain.
However, if I have a low ceiling beyond which I don’t rise, I also have a floor beneath which I labor pretty hard not to fall.
I don’t have much, but with a lot of help from my friends I have more than many other people of similar backgrounds and equivalent follies. I’ve always been careful — and lucky! — not to tumble into the kind of pit T. and the Car Guy seem headed into.
Both friends and luck play big roles. The edge is uncomfortably close sometimes.
But having a personality and a skill helps. Brains help, too. Tiny qualities can save or doom you. But OTOH you can be a genius and spend your life reclusively examining streetcar transfers.
William James Sidis (go check him out at the above link if you don’t already know about him) had a brain as big as a football field and a life as tiny as a mousetrap.
Yet he appeared happy with it — for the short while it lasted. He died at 46. Before that, his life had a kind of John Galtish quality to it. He was clearly “on strike” from a world he felt didn’t treat him properly. He never gave his best efforts to the world — and he had abilities in vast areas. He worked at menial jobs. But he enjoyed his own private obsessions. And those who knew him cherished him in those later years.
So while most people would consider his choices unfortunate and his life tragically misspent, maybe it was just right. Who knows?
The bed you make or the bed you’re tossed and tied up in?
If you’re tempted to feel sorry for T., whose stooped status started this ramble yesterday, think on this.
For several years in the early oughts, every time I saw T. he would talk to me about this community college computer science program he was in. This program had him spending long days taking classes, including ones he had to commute quite a disantance to. This seemed very un-T.-like, but I accepted that he really wanted to better himself.
My neighbor up the road was in this same program and I believe they sometimes commuted together. Now, from what I knew of her, her only interest was in drugs, booze, and neglecting her dogs and horses. But maybe she wanted to better herself, too.
I quickly got to wondering about T. Two years into the program, I tried to talk with him about things computerish. Couldn’t. He didn’t know anything. For instance, he’d never heard of Linux. In fact, he had no idea what an operating system was. He couldn’t conceive that Windows, for one, was a user interface for an underlying OS. He repeatedly mispronounced the names of common apps and their makers and often seemed to have no idea what they did.
In his third year, he told me that his personal email program — the then-common Eudora — had gone down and he’d had to wait for his sister to come reinstall it for him. Whuttt…?
It was shortly after that I learned that a government program was paying every dime of T.’s school costs, including a generous mileage allowance for all that commuting — and paying him an $800 a month stipend, besides.
Shortly after that I discovered T. in a mild-mannered fury. After accumulating four years worth of credits in the nominally two-year community college program, he’d been kicked out. The ‘crats had done an audit and discovered that some unknown number of students, including both T. and my boozy neighbor, were cruising along earning themselves $800 a month as long as they could.
And … boot!
“We were SCREWWWWWWWWWED!” T. lamented.
The eternal question remains: How much do we make our own fates and how much is just the bed we were destined to lie in — genetically, environmentally, psychologically, chemically, physiologically … whatever?
The Car Guy insisted that his family had a history of doing stupid things and that he was going to do better himself. He just had to have a brand new car to do it. Many people pointed out how poorly this would work out, and why. But I don’t think anyone yielded to the temptation to note, “And you’re perpetuating the ‘stupid things’ legacy.”
Could T. have learned computer science and ended up not so stooped, so doomed to labor beyond his body’s capability? Who knows? Was he another willful product of the entitlement age, more interested in scamming the system than embracing the amazing chance to be paid to learn a deskwork skill? OTOH, what if he was merely born dumb, born impractical?
Could The Car Guy have ever been able to listen to all those voices of reason, or was there just something wrong with the wiring in his brain?
Could Sidis have discovered a new mathematical theory, solved an astronomical mystery, or cured a nasty disease? Or did some bug in his upbringing or his genes foreordain that one of the greatest potential geniuses who ever lived would become a collector of steetcar transfers?
Could I have forgotten stubborn principle and lived an ordinary middle- or working-class existence? Hahahahaha. Maybe if somebody hit me on the head in just the right spot.
But other than the Case of Me, which is obvious (I was born this way, and raised to be more this way, and made myself more this way), who knows?
In some ways it seems wrong to criticize T. for abusing the taxpayers’ trust. Maybe he just isn’t smart enough to get it. Maybe desperation drove him. But the fact that he really, really believed he was entitled to that $800 a month forever while learning absolutely nothing indicates such a fundamental level of malfunction, perhaps he can’t seriously be held accountable for it.
Same with The Car Guy. He might be an ass who is ruining his own future as we speak. He might be the epitome of entitlement, imagining that We the Suckers (who he probably never thinks of) would buy him a new car. But obviously something’s wrong deep within and how much power does he have to do change it?
Free will? I believe in it. But I think sometimes we (including I) hold the concept of free will as a talisman against chaos. When some hippie folksinger croons “There but for fortune go you or I …” we say, “Oh hell, no!” Because we need to be better than that. We need civilization to be better than that. With disease and war and earthquake and volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes and unknown terrors all around us, we need to know that we choose to bring order, and that the order we bring calms the storms and shields us from the raw, savage world. Shields us, too, from decadence and collapse, once society becomes too complacent about what are, in the cosmic sense, the rare privileges of comfort and stability. We need to know that our choices can change the world.
And of course, concepts like free will have changed the world. Western civilization was built by the belief — proved oh so right — that we can, though good choices, transcend random fate and nature’s brutality.
It’s true on a personal level, too. IF Car Guy could just for one moment let voices of experience guide him, his whole life might turn toward a different course. IF T. could just recognize that it’s wise to pay attention he might not be facing an old age of heavy labor. They have these choices.
But how much control do they have over whether or not they take these choices?
Well, indeed, Who knows?
We hold them responsible for the traits that doom them. We hold ourselves out as being better or at least smarter and more sensible than they. And contributors are better than takers (until, of course, that pre-Galtish point where the contributors enable the takers to drag the world down). I’m not stooping yet to “There but for fortune …”
And while I don’t know about the car guy, T. still contributes in his own way (since they stopped him from being a taker) — terrible brute labor that helps a lot of local people, even as it cripples his not-very-robust self.
Whatever the answer to the question, of course, our main job here in real life is not to enable unhealthy choices. Unfortunately, this has limited effect when so much of the enabling is done by government.
But it’s certainly worth asking (and worth answering with words more complex than “education!” or “discipline!” or “personal accountability!” or “throw ’em in the military!” or “let ’em starve if they won’t stand on their own two feet!”) whether — and how — the T.’s and Car Guys of the world could be inspired to make wiser choices.
And how would all that affect those of us who reached our not-quite-so-low estate more by deliberate, but not perceptibly prudent, choices?