Monday, January 9, 2017

Blast from the Past, Part 2, on Adversity and Affluence

Here's another letter I just discovered on my old Windows XP laptop--one I just happened to open today, the day after hearing Meryl Streep's comment, "Take your broken heart, make it into art," which she got from Carrie Fisher.  You may not believe me, but the only reason I opened the old, dusty laptop was because I needed an account number, which happened to be in a folder with other files, including multiple letters I had completely forgotten about.  One of them--a mishmash of several letters--is below. I do not remember with whom I was speaking.

Our conversation re: wealth and inheritance got me thinking about why I view wealth, especially inherited wealth, with skepticism, even an inhibitor of creativity and empathy.  It is of course not true that all persons with trust funds spend their days idle or plotting ways to make trouble--JFK is one clear example of that.  Overall, however, it appears creative rich people may be an oxymoron.  The majority of the great authors, thinkers, inventors, athletes, seem to have never been a part of the affluent mainstream.  Everyone from Shakespeare to Mark Twain to Michael Jordan started [without riches]. Now, the question is whether this is just romantic revisionism, or reality.  [Today, artistic endeavors in the "accepted" routes--whether at the Iowa Writers' Workshop or a university drama program--cost significant money, so the landscape has changed. A Lady Gaga may be more likely to come from familial affluence, given the significant upfront investment and time required to break into the entertainment business.] Even so, either result shows that Americans have always prided themselves on the rags-to-riches, bootstraps-pulling story.  The question is, "Why?"

With George W. Bush, for example, we will never know what would have happened had he been born with a different last name. With [Bill] Clinton, on the other hand, Americans seem to have loved him because the story of a man who stood up for his single mom in the face of domestic violence, became a Rhodes scholar, and then went from Arkansas to D.C., is an inspiration.  For whatever reason, people tend to like inspirational stories, something Hollywood knows very well.  Is it possible for someone to come from affluence and still be inspirational? 

It appears that affluence is not the primary guidepost of inspiration, but adversity.  The next question is whether adversity creates inspiration.  I believe it does, because a person who survives adversity has to go through something to succeed and learns lessons from that experience.  So perhaps the more interesting question is, "Does being affluent make it more difficult to be inspirational or creative?"  A new generation of Chinese-Americans may prove this question a simple one as well.

Perhaps being affluent allows one to be shielded from pain or adversity, and therefore halts self-searching.  Years ago, the exercise of self-searching was universally accepted as being important.  Not so long ago, it was clear that all of mankind was capable of heading in the same direction, that the establishment was something to be viewed with caution, that change was powerful, that too much money, especially in the hands of too few people, tended to create disaster, and that working for things like peace and world health and the destruction of nuclear weapons were good things.  Today, with affluence, we are shielded from pain--not only ours, but the pain of others in Africa, dying; of Palestinians in the West Bank, being shot; of refugees in Europe mistreated; and of people in San Jose, California sleeping in their own urine outside of law firms.  In this age of affluence, where Microsoft has billions in cash it doesn't know what to do with, why does it seem that people believe less in world peace, in the common good of mankind, in the idea of food on the table for everyone?

My argument is that this shielding from pain [though I'd now call it challenge rather than pain] has created a world more concerned with materialism than humanity; and as a result, humanity is more easily exterminated, divisions are more likely, and abstract values like community and love are more defenseless as people forget their history and concentrate on protecting their possessions.  Years ago, countries wanted to work towards world peace--witness Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations and the new U.N.  Today, we have Madeline Albright--a very intelligent liberal--saying that the U.S. embargo against Iraq, which kept out materials necessary for everyday life, such as chlorine (for clean water), was justified, and that the deaths of 200,000+ children was a necessary cost.  We have entered a world where children's lives are simply not viewed with reverence or respect, even as we fight at home for the unborn child.  The 60's gave us songs like "Imagine" that were blockbuster hits--the new millennium's song seems to be a fun, but meaningless, "Must be the Money."  [A song I enjoy but one that should have more competition from more substantial Lennon-style lyrics.]

When one views the hope America had just 40 years ago, and the kind of president America is comfortable with today--one can see the corrosiveness of affluence.  When one realizes that pain not only creates personal growth, but causes people to feel less grounded, and therefore more nomadic, one must realize that it is more likely that a nomadic person will want to learn another language, see the world, read the great works, search for something that will make him grounded--the answer oftentimes being the goodness of humanity, the belief that anyone can rise up and make himself into a better man, and that all life should be viewed with respect.

In the end, there seems to be something intrinsically powerful in a person who knows he has arrived where he has because of going against the grain, not primarily because of what his family is or has given him.  Though such a scenario certainly does not exclude help along the way, hard work and self-exploration carry a certain gravitas that persons with affluence often tend to lack, perhaps because affluence tends to isolate. Such isolation from the problems of the majority usually results in the most harmful poverty--something no amount of money could possibly compensate for.  Dubya will never be viewed with the same kind of respect as Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Ghandi, the latter two people concerned with the fate of humanity globally and who believed that humanity was capable of overcoming its faults.  My argument is that a lack of affluence has something to do with that idealism because it forces an inclusionary rather than exclusionary perspective.  And there is something depressing about a country that just 40 years ago elected JFK, believed in hope and peace, and is now content with Dubya, images of torture under his watch, Muslim attorneys being detained wrongly (Brandon Mayfield), an express policy of war first, questions later (preemptive strike), and outright lies regarding WMDs. 

The 60's were a good time to be an American.  People believed in ideals and ideas, believed that problems, such as hunger, disease, poverty, etc. could be mitigated and should be mitigated with the right amount of time and effort.  We have too many realists today, too many people who fail to realize that empires come and go, that America is only 4% of the world population, is only 200 years old, that humanity itself is a mere drop in the bucket of evolution, and a life spent defending widgets or the people that make them rather than progressive ideas, shall separate mankind from his true purpose of living an examined life, of attempting to help increase the sanctity of human life, and of making loneliness less prevalent. There is a whole realm of possibility for those who were poor and have pulled themselves out of poverty, or who have overcome challenges, whether physical or mental, because those people know what humanity is capable of. Affluent persons may realize these truths, too, but those who have suffered adversity know it as a part of everyday life and cannot ignore it and therefore yearn for greater things.  This is perhaps why adversity has created so much inspiration.  A world where people are less concerned with their fellow man than the price of gas or the balance in their bank accounts is a world that cheapens life, makes divisions between people easier to make, whether black and white or Muslim and Christian, and unsafe, because people, knowing that everyone, in the end, is out for themselves, will act accordingly.

(c) (Matthew) Mehdi Rafat

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