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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The trouble with being well-off

This recent article in The American Scholar caught my eye and made me ponder. I am rather surprised at the title, though, because it seems that the author is saying that the rich are different. Tell me if I read it wrong.

I am especially pleased by two things in it. One, that the author quotes a contemporary psychologist cum science journalist in the same breath as Shakespeare: as I say to my pupils, these days you have to be a ‘scientific expert’ to say things that our finest poets said long ago, and far more beautifully and memorably. Two, that the author echoes something I wrote recently (see the post titled That’s it on the homepage) and years ago: we live in an age that allows us to live the ha-ha la-la life for far too long, and it is only when we are sobered up by close proximity to poverty and death that things that ought really to matter start mattering again, and we grow up more in a day or week than in the last several decades. Some people, I have myself written elsewhere, ‘need Auschwitz and Hiroshima to sober up’. Millions of well-off but insignificant people with a bloated sense of self-importance currently in their late twenties and thirties certainly need to have a major accident, or hear that a loved parent has got terminal cancer, or lose a real friend forever out of cussed stupidity. Or maybe the rot has gone so deep that even that won’t make a difference?

On one point, at least, I’d beg to differ with the author. She says that not being always vulnerable has its benefits: ‘because we are not vulnerable, and aren’t preoccupied with it, we are free to achieve many things and contribute to society in creative and constructive ways’. Perhaps she has not heard that lots of people have lived in poverty and under the shadow of death and yet ‘achieved great things and contributed to society’ in far more creative and constructive ways than most contemporary suburbanites with their pretty villas/condos, sleek cars and fancy phones ever will.

Could it be that our ancestors, even till the mid-20th century, were simply made of far more heroic stuff? I compare my grandfather (see the post The End of an era) who was a young man in the 1930s with people I have seen growing up in front of my eyes, and I wonder that they even belong to the same species... people who have been brought up by "helicopter moms" or people who have never yet handled a single real crisis in their lives all by themselves, and are not even aware of what they are.

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