Where You End Usually Depends on Where You Start

From the blog of our president and CEO, Buddy Teaster

I’ve written before about the role of luck in why we are each where we are. The luck of being born in the US compared to say, Haiti or Transnistria, has an incalculable impact on what’s possible. A recent, very sobering article Is It Better to Be Poor in Bangladesh or the Mississippi Delta? even talks about the difference of being born in certain parts of the US vs some developing countries. To quote a line from Everlast’s song What It’s Like, “where you end usually depends on where you start.”

But here’s the problem, from a great blog post by Sasha Dichter called Kart #7, “It’s nearly impossible not to overestimate the roles our intelligence, hard work and skill play in the results we achieve: a success happens, we were smart and tough and hard-working…so it must be that the primary cause of that success were our smarts, our toughness and our hard work.

But if you read the entire post, and I highly recommend spending the 3 minutes, it’s almost never true. There are other factors, ones we can’t see or don’t value that are also behind our successes and failures…but especially our successes.

And these articles and my thoughts then turn quickly to the very prickly idea of “privilege.” While that might have one time been a good thing, something to be taken seriously, it has become a loaded word, thrown around to injure, shame or provoke. Rarely is it used as a starting point for asking the questions about “what do I deserve?” and “what do I owe and to whom?”

Which very quickly draws me back to those “others” who didn’t catch a break, who weren’t born into a stable democracy that is ruled by laws or who never had access to an education. Those who have never know the confidence that comes from knowing there was a real safety net of family/charity/government or all three. Increasingly, those are all things that are happening in developed countries not just developing ones.

There’s another aspect of this that can be confusing to me. Every day at Soles4Souls, we see people who overcome those hurdles. We tell the stories of women and children who fight their way to something better, something that gives us all hope for them and their families. But I have to keep in mind that their exceptions could also prove the rule. For all the people we’re able to help provide a livelihood, a pair of shoes or a warm coat, there are literally millions who won’t get that shot for the reasons listed above as well as lack of food, filthy water, mental illness or being driven from their countries by war. I have to keep from falling into the trap that if only “these” people would work harder and make better decisions, it would be different. Sometimes, maybe much of the time, they don’t really have a chance.

And that leads back to what I deserve and what do I owe. I can (and sometimes do, to the aggravation of my family, friends and colleagues) follow these questions down the rabbit hole. But each time I burrow in, I think I get another chance to see the questions from another perspective. That’s one of the reasons I read. And I’m beginning to be clear that I deserve very little of the amazing life I have and focus on being grateful for it. I owe others the dignity of looking them in the eyes, seeing each one as a person and then doing my best to bring about an equality of opportunity.

Maybe Einstein had it right, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Good words to live by and I’ll keep working on it.