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The day I mistook myself for a human being

It was a chilly day in November and I remember it well, the fog creeping in over the seawall and the air so heavy with water that everything felt saturated with it even though it wasn’t actually raining. The dull weather stood in sharp contrast to my bright mood; I was on top of the world that day, developing an identity and a career. I was young and competent and unafraid, because I had seen my own potential, and I wasn’t afraid to grab for it.

She came to my house uninvited, trailing along behind someone else, and promptly took time to comment on my house (‘surprisingly clean for a young person’) and my person (‘I wasn’t expecting you to be so fat’) and then she promptly delved into what I did. And I told her, and a little sneer started to creep across her face as she proceeded to tell me how to do my job. A job, I note, that she had failed at before, forcing her to transition to a different career, and then another, and another.

She, a failed writer, wanted to tell me how to be a writer. 

And I sat there and took it as long as I could, because I believe in being polite to guests, even uninvited ones, although I made a private note to have it out with the person who had invited her, but eventually I snapped.

‘Pardon me,’ I said, ‘but I’m fairly confident I know how to do my own job.’

She reeled back as though I’d slapped her on the face and then pissed on her mother, and stomped out of my house, huffy at her reception. Typical, she said to the person who’d invited her, ‘of a young person.’

There is a thing about being young and confident in yourself, let alone successful and respected by at least some of the people in your field, that some people seem to find deeply and inherently enraging and offensive. You could attribute the roots of this attitude to many, many things. It’s not about a unilateral sense of the older generation being jealous and fearing that their stars have set, for some of my greatest mentors and helpers have been older than me, some far, far older. This is not an age divide, but something more complex.

There’s a particular kind of person who seems to feel threatened by competence and self-assurance and it took me a long time to learn that this kind of person was incompetent and not self-assured, and that the problem lay with them, and not with me. Or with all the other people these people strive to tear down and make feel tiny and insignificant; the thought that a person might be confident and powerful while still being unafraid to turn to appropriate mentors for help and advice is disturbing. The idea that someone might, in fact, be a human being rather than an object, is threatening.

I made the mistake, that day, of thinking that I was a human being despite my age, and of believing that as someone in the beginnings of establishing an actual career, I, too, had a voice of authority. And she attempted to put me soundly in my place, to tell me I had no idea what I was doing; she was especially offended by the fact that I was choosing to use my time in different ways than she had done during her failed career, that I understood new media and the shifting landscape for writers. Let alone that I wanted to dedicate part of my work to mentoring and helping others; she was shocked and appalled that I would volunteer to help teenagers work on college admissions essays.

‘What’s in that for you,’ she said, and I stared back at her blankly.

I realised only later that her comment summed up the problem with her attitude. It wasn’t that she thought I shouldn’t be giving my work away for free, but that she fundamentally didn’t understand why I might want to support younger writers on their own path to success, just as others had supported me. She had bought into the dog eat dog, crabs in a pot model and she firmly believed that helping anyone advance would only ultimately hurt her.

We all like to see our friends get ahead…but not too far ahead.

We are raised in a culture where we are taught, and trained, to eat each other. Where success on anyone’s part automatically means failure on yours because there is only room for one, and thus you must spend much of your career attempting to tear other people apart, clawing your way to the top, because of course only one person can fit at the top, and that person must be you. The idea of mentoring, of supporting, of even helping people take advantage of opportunities that once helped you, is utterly alien, because that doesn’t support the ethos: You must eat each other to grow stronger.

The larger you grow on the flesh of those you have eaten, the more powerful you have become, and the less accountable you need to be. The less you need to give back, because you have already taken what you need, and in what kind of absurd parody of life would you want to turn around and give any of that away? It would be patent foolishness. There is always someone to be bigger and better than. Keep your eyes on the prize.

She believed that I had no worth as a young person, and more than that, she believed that I needed to be torn into tiny shreds so that I wouldn’t even consider the idea that I might have worth. She wanted to make sure I didn’t infect other youth with my dangerous ideas: yes, you can do this, because those ideas would automatically mean more crabs in the pot, inevitable fighting for scraps and crumbs. She wanted to make sure I understood that I was not a human being, only a pawn on her chessboard.

It didn’t occur to her that us crabs working together could tip the pot over and run free, that instead of scrabbling for stale crumbs, we could take the whole cake. I wonder, still, if she always felt that way, or if she learned that through decades of being snapped at by others, developed her defensive shell and sense of obligation to eat others because she thought it was the only way to evolve in that environment. And I wonder, still, why we keep teaching people this, that they must attack each other to be ‘successful,’ that their careers hinge on stomping other people down, that true mentoring and support are bad because all you’re doing is raising up the crab who will eventually yank you down from the edge of the pot.

Where is the justice here?

Why, particularly, are we teaching a generation of women and girls that this is the way to ‘get ahead’ in life, by embedding it in the very terminology we use to describe success. To get ahead. To get ahead of whom? Or what? To rise to the top. All of these phrases position other human beings as mere obstacles to be crushed and climbed over, and do not exactly promote a culture of solidarity. They do not encourage people to work cooperatively, to exchange and trade ideas fairly and evenly, with respect and attribution where warranted.

And this system also positions elders as something to be pushed out of the way; the demand that older people ‘step aside’ to make way for the next generation, that they retire instead of eating up precious jobs, that they stop pretending they’re relevant. There’s a contempt for the old just as there is for the young, an attitude that they have nothing to teach or offer, that they cannot help people develop their trades and create skills they might use to succeed in life. Instead, elders are to be consumed and discarded, knocked down from the top to make way for someone else to take their place.

All of these systems are structured on a larger capitalist model that commodifies human beings as products, and the things they create as more objects to be bought, sold, and traded. That pits people against each other as content producers in a competitive market, rather than creators who might want to step outside the market or change the way the game is played. The very idea of needing a career and needing to be successful to be a human being, to amount to something in life, is rooted in ideals that I do not necessarily share.

This destructive social model lies at the core of ‘having it all,’ as though worth can be measured in the having rather than in the sharing.

Why must people be taught to buy success at the cost of human lives?

13 Comments

  1. Annaham wrote:

    *applauds wildly*

    LOVE THIS.

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  2. Stella wrote:

    Simply beautiful.

    Solidarity, my friend.

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Michal wrote:

    This is the kind of philosophy that makes life as a human worth living. I wish that those of us that have gone into creative fields of study/work didn’t have to be surrounded by this competitive element. I honestly get a bit of a thrill when I help other artists in their pursuits. I think it’s called building a community.

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Amy wrote:

    Brilliant.
    This flawed model of living and working and consuming each other is also what is sending our planet to the brink through climate change. It will need to be replaced in the next few decades otherwise we’re totally screwed for a liveable ecosystem.

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  5. HW Burns wrote:

    This is wonderful. It bothers me that so many are afraid to mentor.
    Some years ago while updating my resume via a template, I noticed that the “Objective” section at the beginning had been replaced by a “Profile” section. In this section I was to tell the employer who I was in a sentence or less. I found myself puzzling over this for several hours. Finally it came to me…, “Aspiring to Inspire”, is what I felt was appropriate. I have always enjoyed sharing my thoughts and experiences with others and seeing how they interpret/use them. It is an amazing feeling to plant a seed and watch it grow. Sometimes grow into something totally unexpeted.
    HW Burns

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink
  6. Gaayathri wrote:

    Well said. Why is it considered to be normal that we wish our fellow human beings to fail so that we can succeed? Some people call that a culture of excellent. I think it is very sad.

    Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  7. Fede wrote:

    Hear, hear!

    The ultimate treat for yourself is to be helpful to others.

    Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  8. You can learn something from anyone. Even if all you learn is not to do it the way they do.

    People helped me when I was young and I’ll always do the same. It raises the bar for all of us. Brings our professions up.

    Good writing. Good view of life.

    Thanks.

    Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink
  9. Mercutia wrote:

    1.) I totally agree with this. The “looking out For #1″ model is stupid (and frankly dated and tacky) and eating us alive.

    2.) This is beside the point and also crass, but I’m entertaining myself trying to guess who that writer is.

    Friday, July 13, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  10. Joy wrote:

    Thank you.
    That was simply and beautifully told.

    Friday, July 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  11. katansi wrote:

    “And this system also positions elders as something to be pushed out of the way; the demand that older people ‘step aside’ to make way for the next generation, that they retire instead of eating up precious jobs, that they stop pretending they’re relevant.”

    I don’t think that’s how it works for most people. I get that this is a thing that’s written about quite often in baby boomer articles, and maybe I’ve got a perception that’s totally wrong, but it seems to me that MOST people have jobs because they have to, not because they want to. My dad should be retired because he’s really tired of working. He’s old, he has a job that sustains him but he hates it. He’s 60 and if he could focus on his hobbies every day rather than a job he would be better off. He shouldn’t be worrying about being homeless again as a trade off for his physical and mental health in his declining years. It’s literally destroying his body and mind but it provides benefits and food/rent money. He’s probably taking early retirement for SS in three years because he doesn’t want to keep going and it’s not because he feels like he’s not relevant, it’s because he’s just exhausted. He’s been working for 40 years in places that don’t value human beings but pay the bills. Half my aunts and uncles feel this way about their jobs, as do many of my friends’ parents.

    Maybe at a certain class it’s a matter of relevance but out of all the people who reach retirement age who work at Walmart, how many of them do you think want to do that? I can only name a couple people that retired from their regular job and then stayed active in that field, everyone else just worked out of necessity and has used retirement to pursue activities they really love but were too unreliable for bill money. My aunt’s dad used to say “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” which I firmly believe, however how many of us have the luxury of not earning money while waiting for that job? I don’t think relevance is pushing old people out of jobs, I think it’s that young people need them too and America bought into this screwed up idea of individualism that doesn’t play out well in social groups.

    Monday, July 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Permalink
  12. Kerry wrote:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve been in somewhat similar positions, even (especially) with colleagues in the same company. One success is everyone’s success, to the extent that it helps the company, right? So why is it so hard to get people to understand that? I wonder about a form of “reverse mentorship” where you guide people through sharing their skills and ideas openly and honestly. Interesting thought. Or perhaps we should replace “managers” with “mentors” altogether. That takes the emphasis off the employee being managed and puts it on the mentor offering effective guidance. I’ll think about this if/when I get to hire folks for my company (I guess that means I would have to be chief mentor? yikes!). Thanks again.

    Wednesday, July 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  13. Thank you, for writing about this. I’m sorry you had to handle personal jabs like that. Just today I was belittled and torn into, by a person I had previously assumed was a friend for commenting on the writing style of a blog-rant he’d sent me (written by someone other than him). For that, he tore into my completeness as a person (humanity?), my Scientific integrity (I have four degrees, two of which were research based and have resulted in substantial new Scientific discoveries, published on in peer-reviewed Journals)and my IQ. I was hurt but called him out and vowed not to hang out with him again. Oh and all this was via email, which he ended with a random rape analogy which I actually will discuss with him face to face. That will obviously, be the last time I speak to him. Only children get personal with people who disagree with them and the rest of us, as adults, just have to develop stronger boundaries in blocking that sort of negativity. =S

    Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink