My son is currently a college student living at home. To earn money, he works part time as a sales floor clerk at an upscale home improvement store. On more than one occasion he has come home from work frustrated, complaining bitterly about (as he puts it) “rich snobs customers” who don’t realize that he is a college student, and treat him in a condescending manner because he is “just” a sales clerk. I tell him that it doesn’t matter whether you are a college student or a career sales clerk, the condescending attitude is inappropriate.
This exchange with my son invariably causes my thoughts to turn nostalgically to my own father, and what he would have had to say on the subject. My father died when I was 21, more than 32 year ago, but he is still the most important role model in my life. He was the son of Italian immigrants, and worked all his life as a very skilled cabinet maker. He certainly understood the value of money, and drummed into his children’s heads from an early age the importance of an education, primarily in order to live more comfortably and attain more than he ever did. However, the interesting thing is that, although my father surely did appreciate the value of money, he believed that that by no means defined the worth of an individual. That, instead, should come from the kind of person you are, what you have learned, and the skills you have acquired. He would put this very succinctly; he would always tell us that we should never be proud of anything we bought with money because someone else with money can have exactly the same thing. I think of this often when I hear someone, for example, being congratulated for buying a new car. Why is that a cause for congratulation? If you go to the dealer with a check, you can have one too.
My father also believed that you should never look down on anyone who is earning an honest living, no matter how seemingly menial or unimportant their position. If your job is sweeping the streets, do a conscientious job, and that should be a sense of pride in your life, and a cause for being treated with respect. Similarly, he believed that a person’s level of cultural attainment is unrelated to the importance of their job, how much money they have, or their social position in life. He lived this. He never graduated from high school and was a blue collar worker all his life, but he was an excellent musician, playing four or five instruments at a high level of proficiency, and was very well versed in both jazz and classical music. Similarly, his brother and closest friend, who drove an oil truck all his life, was also a musician, was extremely well read in philosophy, and his favorite hobby was carving replicas of famous ancient Greek statues out of wood, and he did absolutely exquisite, detailed work. Neither my father nor my uncle had a lot of money or high social standing, but they clearly had a sense of pride in what they accomplished in life.
My own children are both now young adults. I hope that I have been as successful in passing on my father’s philosophy to them, as he was to me. I believe that this philosophy is a pathway toward loosening the grip of the apparent caste system, based on wealth, which infects our society. In so doing, it could contribute toward an increased sense of contentment and self respect, the lack of which I believe plays an important role in many of society’s ills.