I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.
The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!
The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed. Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.
Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys. But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.
In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage. Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.
Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.
The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.
* * * * * * *
If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario. I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize. The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first. Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.
As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor. When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.
If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.
Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.
If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.
Perhaps half the group does so, including me. Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.
If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.
Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.
If you own your own home, walk up one floor.
I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.
If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.
Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me. I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.
If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.
Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.
If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.
This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone. After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.
How many people on the first-floor landing?
How many on the second?
I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor. The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field. That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!
* * * * * * *
Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place. But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor. I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!
But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor. The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.
One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win. Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.
Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.
That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.
That’s privilege and reward.
As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.
Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.