Novelist | Singer
Is this you? Born between WWII and 1990, some semblance of white middle class, educated beyond middle/high school, house owner, car owner (maybe multiple), steady job, possibly retirement plans in place. Then you–and I–hit the Sweet Spot.
This is not intended to brag, shame, or judge. It could be a slap on the forehead, the realization that we, the privileged hit a time in world history (not just American) full of life-necessities, choices, and potential of achieving success. My time frame may be a little off, and undoubtedly there are discrepancies in this demographic. But you and I are among the most fortunate humans to have ever walked this planet’s soil. We live in a democracy that affords so many choices. We can generally leave the security of our homes without a thought of danger or violence. Many of us own homes that are comfortably cool in summer and warm in winter, reliable cars, appliances that wash our clothes and dishes, keep our food cool or frozen, warm our coffee. We have big black screens hanging from our walls that entertain, report the news and weather, stream our movies and give us access to the world at the click of a button. We twist a tap and an endless supply of clean water gushes forth. We go to dinner with friends. We possess multiple computers (including ubiquitous phones) that initiate the purchase of goods in a couple of clicks, and delivery to our doorstep within a week. We go on vacations to fun, exotic places. We have closets so jammed with clothes that we have trouble finding things. We are never truly hungry or thirsty, or trembling in cold weather. We live lives of some certainty: we work, we sleep, we exercise, eat, drink and play with our children or our dogs. We live better than most of the world population. And we think this is normal life. I’m not speaking of rich people. This includes a lot of us.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
We complain. In some cases–about almost everything.
This is what one of my seasonal staff members reported. He is from Turkey. He is puzzled by Americans and their attitudes—either angry or entitled, or both. He was raised in a small rural town high in the mountains. He hauled wood, water, and food as a kid. He was displaced and put on a train at eight years old, uprooted and deported across borders by People in Power. He was lucky enough to come to the US in 2008. He lives in an apartment with his American wife and has taken any job he can secure, working construction, giving cycle rickshaw tours in NYC, where he slept on the office floor because he couldn’t afford rent. He is a green card holder. He is younger than I am by 20 years.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
He never complains. And his lack of complaint is noticeable to those around him.
He is happy to work whatever job he has, unphased by car troubles, personnel or logistical issues at work. He does whatever I request. Agrees to any days or schedule I suggest. He has something I do not: real life perspective. He knows struggle, hunger, banishment, prejudice, and hardship that few of us can imagine.
He spoke of a pervasive emotional condition in the States. “There is no depression where I come from,” he said. “People are too busy trying to survive to be depressed.”
I am one generation removed from a house in rural Nebraska with a family of ten–eight children born before the Great Depression. As a kid, my dad had one pair of overalls per year. His mother made clothes which she then washed by hand, threading each article through a wringer before hanging them out on a line, both summer and winter. She grew a huge garden for vegetables that then had to be canned because there was no freezer, gathered eggs and milked a cow every day. Grandpa went suddenly deaf at age 25, had to quit his teaching job at the local elementary school and became a rural postal carrier and sign painter. My dad started driving a car when he was eight years old to help his father deliver mail on dirt roads. Dad hunted pheasant and rabbits for the family dinner table starting at about age ten with his .22. He had chores before and after school. No washer or dryer, no refrigerator, no central heat, no private space of any kind. This was not a grandfather or great-grandfather. This was my dad. I dodged that existence by one generation.
Dad was handy and incredibly creative. He built a houseboat that we launched hundreds of times in local lakes. He also built a backyard train for us kids—a train that we could ride on. He could fix anything. I still own tools that he purchased or inherited long before I was born. He was a missionary in the 40s and became a professor at a seminary, teaching New Testament books and reading ancient Greek and Hebrew translations of the Bible.
Never played games, never watched anything on TV except the news or boxing or the occasional professional sports game. He worked all the time. He could be a hard person. I remember always being a little cautious around him. He was a man shaped by a childhood of hardship.
The lucky generations from WWII through the 90s live a life of luxury never before seen in our world history by such a large segment of the population. There have always been rich and poor people. But we are unique, blessed, fortunate, privileged—whatever adjective you prefer. We have choices. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was a frequent question. Choices. I could do virtually anything I wanted, as long as I was willing to put in time and effort.
Our privileged subset has experienced very little prejudice, at least in its own world. When was the last time you were discriminated against because of the color of your skin? In fact, it may never have happened, and if it did, it was a shock. We can travel the world and speak English almost anywhere we land. And yes, the Ugly American thing is real—I’ve seen it countless times, and I’ll bet I’ve done something unconsciously that could be labelled Ugly American. We’re so privileged, we don’t even know how privileged we are. I’ve traveled extensively, including developing countries, and never really encountered blatant prejudice. In general, people throughout the world seem to like Americans, at least to our faces. We typically don’t have to deal with overt prejudice. Almost never. If and when it happens to you, it will hurt. It can make you feel unsafe. It can make you angry or lose confidence, or glance over your shoulder, ready for anything to happen. And to think that some people, especially people of color, encounter it multiple times every day. It is their reality.
Things are changing in this great country. Rents are so out of control that young people simply can’t afford to move out of their parents’ home. If they are lucky enough to attend college, they often graduate with loans that saddle them with decades of debt. They may never get out of debt—it is a lifetime condition. They can’t afford medical insurance. Their jobs generally don’t come with a pension plan. They may never be able to own a home or retire. They are also facing a future in a rapidly warming climate, and all that brings with it. It must be terrifying. Or maybe it is simply their reality.
My Turkish friend spoke of the cycle—adversity forces people to work hard to improve their lives, and the next generation is stronger, wealthier, and more privileged. Then their children reap those benefits. And the benefits last for a couple of generations, until at some point, the children weaken. Accustomed to a life of ease, they are incapable of hard work. Then the hardship begins, and people start to suffer. And the cycle repeats itself throughout human history, on and on. And we never seem to learn.
We are on that brink. Our once flourishing middle class sweet spot will disappear.
And yet . . . I am hopeful. I am hopeful that we will open our eyes, discard the distractions and buckle down to create a better world for all of us. It will take all of us, every day. Become involved. Volunteer. Be aware of your own actions and your own consumption. Drive less. Grow your own food. Turn off the lights. Turn off the water. Stop stuffing your house with things you don’t need. Instead of buying yet another item that a friend or relative may not want or need, purchase consumables, or make something out of cast-off items. Imagine, if everyone did this. What a huge difference that would make, right? Do I need this bobble? Do I care? Who needs help? Real help?
I recognize the negativity of this essay. Americans are a positive bunch and always look for feel-good. I am looking for the positive. Can our future be positive? Let’s just watch. Watch how things unfold in the coming months and years. In the meantime, consider the slim odds of being born into the Great American Sweet Spot. Be grateful. Be thought-full about actions and consumption. Be kind—to people of every color, to our earth—because she deserves our devotion and respect.
And stop complaining.