Few things are more offensive to those committed to the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps philosophy than the message that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11). The insight of this biblical writer is highlighted in countless ways each day for all who have eyes to see. Effort and ability, while not unimportant, are not more crucial to success and failure than time and chance.
Nevertheless, the bootstraps gang seeks to disconfirm this truth by finding exceptions, rags to riches stories. Then they use these exceptions to claim that hard work can overcome every obstacle and that fundamental unfairness doesnt really exist. The edifying anecdotal tales of the remarkable individuals who triumph against all odds are great to hear. But to take those tales and generalize, claiming anyone can do the same if they just try hard enough is deceptive and harmful.
On the one hand, this implies that those who dont triumph against all odds are just too lazy and therefore blameworthy. On the other hand, this suggests that nothing needs to be done to make equal opportunity more of a reality, not just an empty claim.
The promoters of the bootstrap philosophy have been captivated by the story of an exceptional, once homeless young woman named Dawn Loggins. She did, indeed, come from a background of hardship and disadvantage. Despite her significant lack of opportunity, she worked hard and was accepted into Harvard University with a scholarship. Her achievement deserves respect and applause. Unfortunately, her case has become a tool used by some to declare once again that the great advantages of the wealthy and powerful are nothing about which to be concerned. They can be readily overcome with enough will-power and effort. It is all up to you!
Really? In my last blog on Red Letter Christians I proposed that the following are frequently unacknowledged items are necessary steps in a successful life.
(1) Get born in the right time.
(2) Get born in the right part of the world.
(3) Get born in the right family.
(4) Get the right combination of genes.
(5) Meet the right people.
(6) Take advantage of the opportunities (1) (5) provide by working hard.
(7) Die at the right time, that is, before encountering a major uncontrollable set-back such as catastrophic illness, accident or natural disaster.
Ms. Loggins wonderful story confirms my proviso: On rare occasions some or all of steps (1) (3) may be missing but the absence of these must be over-compensated with steps (4) and (5). She was certainly not born into a solid, affluent family or into a privileged neighborhood. But clearly she was born with a set of genes that bestowed upon her a superior intellectual capacity, a capacity lacking in most people. We can say she received this by grace or say, with the author of Ecclesiastes, that it was chance. But what cannot be said was that it was hers by works. Ambition and effort no more accounts for her intelligence than laziness accounts for Downs Syndrome.
Further, the bootstraps advocates quickly echo the claim, If there is anybody at all who has a dream, then they can definitely make it happen .There are no excuses. It depends on you and no one else. But Loggins own story is not one of a self-made young woman. She met the right people. Her Burns High School guidance counselor Robyn Putnam took her under wing, recognizing her potential, purchasing supplies and clothing for her and offering her encouragement. Putnam was not alone in offering help. Others on the school faculty gave her money and a dentist supplied her with toothpaste and a toothbrush. A community of caring people filled in for her extremely dysfunctional family
A was quick to point out that whatever help Loggins received was not due to some govt. program. Really? No meals through a school lunch program? No food stamps? No medical care funded with public dollars that made possible the vaccinations required for school? Given the state of her family, it is next to impossible that she made it to high school graduation without significant help provided by the government. And she attended a public school, right?
A host of factors were involved in Dawn Loggins success beyond just her own determination and hard work. Honesty demands that this be admitted. And none of this should detract from the fact that what she accomplished is remarkable. She did sacrifice and pour out a great deal of effort to succeed. She did exactly what I named in my point (6) above, by taking advantage of the opportunities and working hard. But to claim that the same sort of thing is possible for anyone is hogwash. Take away her fortuitous genes, the personal support she received and the government help she was given and what do you have left? One thing is certain: not a young woman heading to Harvard.
Im thankful for people like Dawn Loggins. But I believe we miss the real lesson if we look at her and then claim, Anybody can do it. Frankly, that is a lie. The rare individuals like Loggins should not be used as an excuse to do nothing to improve the opportunities for others. The United Stated has become a land of diminished opportunities in comparison to quite a number of other nations, studies show. As someone once told me with a nod to Ken Kesey- Just because one flew over the cuckoos nest, that doesnt mean we dont need to seriously reform the asylum.
We need to ask, What can be done to insure that more people have a chance to have better lives? Just to admire Loggins and do nothing more is to fail to follow Jesus, who calls us to do unto others as we would have them do for us (Luke 6:31). This surely involves acts of personal kindness and generosity but not only those deeds. Since we also act through a representative government, the national policies we choose to support also play a role. The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding (Proverbs 29:7). Rights pertain to justice, not primarily to individual charity.
Something is deeply wrong in a society when personal responsibility for success is placed on the less advantage as an excuse to neglect the responsibility of a nation to insure that opportunities are sufficient that success isnt so rare that it becomes national news. Yes, people should work for success. But they should never have to work against all odds in order to succeed.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the