In our culture, we often label people as “unambitious” or “unmotivated,” as if self-will is the only driver of success. And when we speak of structural obstacles, we risk being labeled as “lazy” or “complainers.”
We like to think that everyone has an equal chance in America, that we play on an even field. We like to think our successes are due to our own merit. We often forget that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and that we enjoy advantages in some areas of our lives that we didn’t earn by our own effort.
Recognizing our privilege can feel threatening. Compassion can be difficult.
You may have heard the cliché about “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” It’s an old analogy, and the origins aren’t familiar to most people today. It dates back to a time when a person needed assistance in putting on and taking off boots. If you were a peasant, for example a farmer, your boots would have flaps hanging down on each side, that looked rather like puppy-dog ears. You would use these “bootstraps” to pull your boots on, then later you’d use a “boot jack” to take them off.
Bootstraps still exit today in this form (you may have these on some of your own shoes and boots):
“Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” means living independently and taking responsibility for yourself, not expecting any assistance from others. It can be a useful idea – as long as we remember that not everyone has boots, let alone bootstraps. The tools for success are not readily available to all of us.
Let’s cultivate compassion today. Let’s remember that we live in community with others.