By: Revanche

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

March 5, 2013

Sometimes I think the world needs to hear this a little more often.

This is a bit of a follow-on thought from the Marissa Mayer post, and partly inspired by a comment I absolutely agreed with from Cloud’s post, bold emphasis mine.

Laura Vanderkam saidI get annoyed with the carping at successful women for reasons of privilege, etc. When Donald Trump writes a book on success, no one says “well, that’s easy for him to say because someone else is cleaning his bathrooms” or “of course he’s successful because he can afford a nanny.” People who reach the top often have interesting things to say about what it takes to reach the top. Sometimes it’s helpful to listen or read without judging, and if you decide it’s wrong for you, fine. But if a strategy is wrong for you, that doesn’t make someone who used it, ipso facto, a bad person. Yes, I’m referring to the Sheryl Sandberg backlash, but this mindset is out there a lot.”

This is the thing that underlies my frustration with the tearing down of women in specific and people in general when they’re successful. The whiny, self crippling, justifications of why we can’t possibly be “like that” because we’re not privileged.

Many kinds of privilege exists. Absolutely. And in some places, the privilege is truly crippling, I’m not disputing that.

What I am tired of is that the vast majority of people complaining tend to be at least capable, competent of mind and body, and have access to first world amenities that are potential tools. Instead, they dwell on why that won’t work for them.

It makes me think of a story …

…my dad used to tell me of the poor region where he grew up. He was one of the few privileged back then but he clearly recognized the privations that were the norm for the majority of people as recently as 30 years ago, even 15 years ago. He told us this story many, many times.

“Most of the people were so poor that they had one change of clothing a year. If they made enough money to buy fabric, and could afford a needle and thread to sew, they could make a new pair of pants for themselves. Maybe with pockets. Probably not. But, pants.

Their families didn’t have enough money for three meals a day for everyone, they could have one full meal a day. But they were hungry for education. They couldn’t afford books, paper, pens or pencils. Still, they were determined to learn. And unlike here in the U.S., education was not a right. It was a privilege.

The students were so desperate for the chance to learn that they would walk upwards of ten miles to school, and the classes were so big that the students wouldn’t fit into the classroom. So they opened the doors and windows, and the students would sit outside on the ground and listen. They couldn’t take notes, there was no paper, so they memorized the lectures. They had to review the lessons orally.

They had to study this hard because there was an annual exam to pass each grade. If you didn’t memorize everything, you were dropped out of school. And the exam covered everything that was taught through the year. With the limited resources, there was no such thing as grading on a curve, the students who failed would leave the school and have to figure out how to make a living with a grade school education, or however far they got. This was high stakes.

With no tools, with no aids, many of these students – your mother was among them – managed to learn math, science, reading, writing, language at each progressively more difficult level.

No pens, no paper, no computers. But they found a way to learn anyway. What do you need to learn and prosper?

If those people in our generation can figure out how to learn, progress and make successful lives with literally no resources but a sparing food ration, time during the day, their minds and their motivation, can you honestly say there’s anything you truly can’t do?”

No Dad,  I couldn’t say that.  If I don’t make something of myself, it sure won’t ever be blamed on a lack of privilege. 

I was never the smartest kid around but I could damn well try to be the hardest working. With that kind of heritage, that kind of cultural past, I could hardly cop out by making excuses, could I?

I’ve written about my mom as my motivation more than once. I realized that my dad hasn’t gotten as much airtime. Where Mom was the tower of strength and capability in all things, teaching us language in her “spare time, and demonstrating work ethic alongside Dad, Dad was the storyteller in the family, the one who made the past live again for us, linking us to the family and cultural histories.

What’s your inspiration?

19 Responses to “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”

  1. This is so hard!

    I agree that I’m frustrated at a lot of the backlash around Sheryl Sandberg’s book. It’s true that sexism still exists, but from what I’ve read of her book, it’s about dealing with that reality in the workplace. Critics who are taking issue with the fact that she’s not talking about 100% feminist theory are missing the point – that would be a better world but it’s not the world we actually live in.

    It’s hard to talk about because it’s easy to slip into blaming people for not overcoming adversity – in your example, deaf kids, or kids with learning disabilities, almost certainly didn’t get an education no matter how hard they tried. And it’s unfair and unhelpful to be going “Hey oppressed people, you can do it if you TRY HARDER REALLY!” because sometimes that’s just not true. On the other hand…there is a lot more we can do than I think some 100% theory critics acknowledge. It’s shit and it isn’t the way it should be – but it’s the way it is.

    • Revanche says:

      Generally, I don’t feel that blame has much of a place; it serves about as much purpose as does guilt. The constructive thing to do is ask “what’s wrong here and how can we improve it?”
      I didn’t get into the “try harder” discussion because that’s complicated and nuanced and the point of my Dad’s stories (aside from sharing a piece of our history) was that we CAN choose to make the best of our situations, whatever they are, and we define our successes. It’ll be different for everyone but the important thing is to choose.
      That, in part, carried me through nearly 20 years of undiagnosed chronic pain to build a reasonably satisfactory life.

  2. Kris says:

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE your family stories. They always make me think, and I’ll admit, secretly wish I could have dinner one night with y’all. 😀 Thank you so much for this.

    • Revanche says:

      Hehe dinner and bedtime – best times for the stories. Oh, also? When we got in trouble and had disappointed him. 😉

  3. Followed over here from Wandering Scientist — thanks for the thumbs up on my comment! We all — as part of making the most of the gifts that have been given us — can try to improve our situations. It is not denying the reality of larger social forces to also look at what is within our own power to change.

  4. Mochimac says:

    Same — my mom.

    My mom had similar stories which I think I’ll start writing about.

    It’s amazing when you think about the chances that you get to do well, and when you do reach some form of excellence (as determined by you), you are suddenly under the spotlight of “not having done it all by yourself”, and told about how “you should spread / share the wealth.”

    Yet all others around you, who have had the same opportunities in front of them, and essentially the same life (regardless of how much money they had or didn’t have, we lived and grew up in the same city), who haven’t made it… are the ones who whine the loudest about how they aren’t privileged.


    • Revanche says:

      Stories! I vote yes. That assigned sense of entitlement is not limited to women or wealth, but it’s aggravating wherever you see it.

  5. Linda says:

    Sad to say, I think my motivation to achieve in life is fear. I don’t consider that an “inspiration” since I think inspirations are positive things, so I call it a motivation or a motivator. My parents and grandparents did the best they could and provided me the opportunities which they thought most suitable, based on their values. I’ve done very well and have a Master’s degree, a successful career, and a well-paying job. I also have lots of non-work interests that are productive and give me pleasure, and I have a supportive group of friends.

    However, I can’t say I look to any particular person as inspiring, nor can I think of anything that has spurred me on to achieve other than my own stubbornness and desire to prosper. I was and am determined *not* to end up like my mother — a woman who has a many physical and mental health issues — or my father — a man who chased the latest scheme to advance, but didn’t think through the consequences and so had mostly losses. I learned that I needed to take care of myself at an early age and I’ve continued to do so all my life. I save for retirement because I know that I won’t have anyone to rely on. I feel like my savings are the only thing between me living on the streets eating out of trash bins or lying in a nursing home bed in my own waste. I guess that sounds negative, but it is the way I think.

    • Revanche says:

      I would not poopoo fear as a motivator. It was “negative” motivation, sure, but it’s still a driver. I spent my twenties in absolute terror of failing my parents when they needed me most. That’s partly what the Generational Poverty post was about. And the fear of becoming a bag lady because my chronic pain was going to cripple me early in life.
      Whether spurred by fear, desperation or ambition, you did well for yourself and I think that’s wonderful.

  6. Cloud says:

    This is a really great post.

    I was relatively privileged as a kid (solidly middle class, decent schools, happy family) and am even more privileged now. I can look back and see the things that got me to my more privileged spot- there is hard work, and some good decisions, but also the enormous leg up I had at the beginning, based on my background. So I want to do two things: (1) look at my life now and figure out what things my privilege is “buying” that I think should be there for everyone- things like access to high quality day care I can afford, and (2) look at the people working their way up from a less privileged place than I started at and figure out what the rest of us can do to support them as they work- things like making sure all of our public schools provide high quality education.

    • Revanche says:

      In so many ways, privilege can be a good thing. Like this.
      In our culture, it’s sort of expected that anyone who is privileged will give a helping hand to those who have less, whether it’s family or through social institutions. Not so many have the means to directly address the root causes but we all do what we can.

      • jesinalbuquerque says:

        This has been one of the strengths of this country, but it has eroded sadly. With some glowing exceptions, the rich seem to have adopted an “I got mine” attitude, and it is bringing us all down, perhaps most of all those of us who ‘got ours’

        • Revanche says:

          IMHO, it’s an attitude shared by many, not limited to the rich. Something I partly attribute to the reality show pop culture.

  7. I think of my parents whenever I come close to whining about a first world problem. They gave up the life they had in their home country and moved our entire family to the United States so my sisters and I can become privileged. They inspire to live well because I feel I owe it to them. That’s not meant in a resentful manner, they’re not Tiger Dad and Tiger Mom by any means. They’ve sacrificed so much for us that the best repayment I can think of is to become a meaningful, contributing member of society.

    • Revanche says:

      I feel much the same way. My parents didn’t push hard but they set an example and I would have been a fool not to learn from it. Not to mention all the good stories with meaning and lessons behind them.

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