I’ve never understood people who take full credit for their accomplishments, as though getting top grades, running the fastest mile, being the most productive developer on the team, exceeding sales targets or alphabetizing by author and within genre your thousands of physical, wonderful to hold, books was a solo performance. And I’ll admit to cringing when the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” gang, the “we don’t need any help from government” gang, and the “your health issues are your problem” gang express these views. But rather than cringing from or even screaming at all of those whose world view is radically different from my own — I’m sure you’ve noticed that screaming at people doesn’t really help — I’ve developed a simple, easily explained conceptual framework for discussing these issues, my 3-legged stool of life. The beauty of this framework, beyond giving you a place to sit, is that no one challenges the notion that a stool, to be stable, must have at least three good legs.
As it happens, we are all either blessed or cursed by the circumstances of our birth and by the good or bad fortune, the mazel, that has accompanied our journey through life. Let’s start with that first leg, the accident or circumstances of your birth. Were you born in the US rather than in North Korea? Mazel tov (literally, good luck). Born healthy, intelligent, and loved? Mazel tov. Wanted and raised by two reasonably together and prepared parents? More mazel. Born in a country whose system of laws, technology infrastructure, and overall economic development is substantial? Mazel again. Born into a country without a major epidemic underway and not engaged in a war on its own soil? The mazel is piling up. None of this is your doing. It’s just the luck of the draw, something for which you cannot take any credit. But if you’re lucky at the start, if the accident and circumstances of your birth are felicitous, you’re off to a far better start, before you’ve lifted a finger or uttered a word, than the vast majority of people being born on our beleaguered but also glorious planet.
Once those circumstances of your birth have provided enough mazel to get you started, it’s time to consider the second leg of our stool. Did you manage to get from your birth to today without any dread diseases, horrible accidents, loss of your freedom or life in civil unrest? Pure mazel. Did that system of laws into which you were born hold tight to this point in your life, protecting you personally, enabling your clear purchase of property, allowing your parents’ will to be probated correctly, demanding that things you had bought work as promised? Yup, just more mazel, and this time it’s brought to you by your government.
And what about picking you up when the shit hits the fan, as it does in every life. Did your healthcare system have the requisite capabilities to treat your cancer, broken leg, early onset diabetes, etc.? Did your public schools have the requisite capabilities to give you a solid foundation upon which to layer your vocational or professional education? Government mazel at work. And what about ensuring that the driver of the other car, who hit you while texting and destroyed your car, put you in hospital and out of work for six months of post-surgical rehab, has insurance and that your legitimate insurance claims are paid? It’s that legal system, healthcare system, and insurance system, working together, to get you back on your feet, perhaps even putting the bastard who hit you in jail.
Not getting nailed on your passage through life by events and factors beyond your control is mazel at work. But, obviously, getting nailed because we choose to engage in risky behaviors, neglect our health (e.g. don’t keep our vaccines up-to-date or don’t get proper check-ups) even though we have the means (money and/or health insurance and/or public health services) to access these important preventive measures, or stay with an abusive partner/spouse/boss even when we have the means (which doesn’t make it easy but does make it possible) to address the psychological issues as well as to support ourselves and our families if we leave the abusive situation — all of these personal choices cannot be blamed on a failure of mazel when they produce bad outcomes.
And then there’s the critical 3rd leg of our stool of life. You can take full credit for what you build on top of all that good luck through your own hard work, careful choices, and perseverance.
And of course you can offset some of the bad luck you’ve had with extra effort on your part, e.g. showing the initiative to take online courses (assuming you’re lucky enough to have access to them and not to be working three jobs just to put food on the table so that you have time for them) to augment a less than stellar public school system.
I worked my butt off to pay my expenses (everything except tuition), which my family couldn’t afford to pay, so that I could attend an Ivy League college for my undergraduate degree rather than having an easier financial time (and a much more extensive social life) going to a state college. I chose to wait until I had also put myself through graduate school, working days and going to school at night, before getting married. My husband and I, both well-educated and with well-paid but very demanding careers, chose to live more modestly than many of our peers and than our income could have supported so that we could build up considerable savings. Now, in retirement, those savings are coming in mighty handy, just as they were intended to do.
But it’s important to remember just how much of what we become, of who we are, and of what we have is just plain dumb good luck. Yes, I made careful choices and worked really hard, but there’s a lot of my father’s influence (and remember, I didn’t pick my father but rather got him through the luck of the draw) in those choices because he taught me to be frugal, to work for what I wanted, and not to expect anything from anyone. Yes, my husband and I have been a good team in every aspect of our lives, but my meeting him was pure mazel. And yes, I can afford to mitigate some of my lost mobility with an expensive (but very cool www.travelscoot.com) mobility scooter which isn’t covered by insurance and the cost of which cannot be deducted as a medical expense. But if the diagnosis of these problems in my late 30’s, and their predicted development time line, had proven correct, my loss of mobility would have crippled, literally, my career during my peak earning years, and we’d be facing a very different financial future.
Thinking about life this way, as a three-legged stool (the good fortune of our birth, the good fortune of our lives, and what we ourselves accomplish through our own efforts) of which we only control one leg, makes clear why tzedakah, why the Jewish concept of philanthropy, is an obligation for those of us whose stools have three good legs. Knowing that so many such stools have two wobbly legs explains why I’m on the progressive side of the political divide. If you’re lucky enough to have a 3-legged stool supporting you, give, give, give until it hurts, vote every chance you get, and take good care of the one leg whose well-being you can control.\
(Cross-posted @ In Full Bloom)