I believe that I worked for everything I got. I also believe that is hardly the point.
On the face of it, this statement is simple, straightforward, and pretty much unassailable. Furthermore, people, like me, who have indulged in this noble declaration, are seldom, if ever, lying. Yet, when we say it, how many of us realize what a feeble half truth it is?
This simple sentence claims for the speaker, concisely and effectively, three major pillars of the mythic American character: hard work, individualism, and success. I worked, I got.The one thing it does not convey, however, is gratitude, a realization of how differently things might have turned out despite the hard work. Nor is it typically accompanied by a sense of empathy for those who never rise above subsistence.
In the late ’60s, when I worked as a VISTA volunteer in the South, the first thing that struck me about the poor is how hard they work. At that time, a single black mother raising three kids in Florida would find it quite difficult to land a job as a waitress. “Come on, man, you can always get a job waiting tables.”
Not if you were black. You could vacuum the rugs in hotel rooms, scrub the bathroom tile and change the beds, but the more lucrative positions of waiting tables went first to whites. This mom could also labor alongside the migrant workers in the orchards or in the local tomato processing plant, places where the average middle-class worker wouldn’t last a day.
Step back for a wider, present-day perspective and consider the peasant in Central America, the sweat shop employees of Asia, the granite quarry workers of India, the garbage dump denizens of Mexico. If anyone reading this has worked so hard for so long as these folks, I’d be surprised.
So, why do former VISTA volunteers report that they are, more frequently and in greater degree than the general population, sympathetic with the poor and committed to social justice?
If you’re thinking it’s because we were all a bunch of radicals to begin with, you’re unfamiliar with the callow, untested youth of middle-class privilege and values who gravitated to VISTA when it first started. It is not the timber of the recruits that accounts for the lifelong change in attitudes. It is simply that the experience of knowing and working with the poor is so startling.
We learned that there is a difference between the haves and have-nots, but it is one that the winners do not often dwell upon. The difference, sisters and brothers of the middle class, between us and untold millions around this globe is not that we worked for what we got, but that we got what we worked for.
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