So with all the stuff I’ve been hearing about Melania Trump’s speech, with all the accusations of plagiarism, I have yet to hear anyone address the lie: the lie repeated by her and by Michelle Obama, and, by the sound of it, repeated by plenty of American parents over the centuries. (Or is it new? I get the feeling it’s not new. I get the impression that this lie is an ingrained part of American culture. Do correct me if I’m wrong.)
What’s this lie I’m talking about? The lie that both these ladies said they want their children and all “children in this nation to know”. Here’s how Michelle Obama put it:
“that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
It sounds great… if you’re a young person who needs just that extra bit of encouragement, if you’re a young person who was maybe feeling a bit unsure, if you’re a young person with a good brain and with dreams and with an ability to work hard. You have the brains, you have the imagination, you have energy – and this kind of talk can fire you up and get you to really work hard at whatever it is that you dream of doing.
But how will it sound to those who try but fall flat on their face through no fault of their own?
You see, the problem with this kind of talk is that it completely ignores the fact that real life contains quite a lot of stuff we have no control over.
You might have great dreams, and be willing to work really hard, but your dreams might not match your actual abilities – is it really helpful to encourage a person to keep at it if all they’ll do is keep failing? Isn’t it better to say: look at your abilities, look at what you are actually good at, and find a more realistic dream?
You might have great dreams, and be willing to work really hard, but something happens that makes it impossible for you to carry on. How would this kind of talk sound to someone who is, for instance, suffering from seriously debilitating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after fighting for their country, the country where supposedly anyone can achieve anything if only they’re willing to work really hard? How would this kind of talk sound to a girl who is held against her will in a cellar by an abusive father or a kidnapper? How would this talk sound to someone who has had to give up career plans to stay home and care for a loving parent who is suffering from chronic illness? How, for that matter, would you say this to kids at a school where there’s just been a mass shooting and they’ve seen some of their class mates’ lives cut short, never to make any of their dreams come true?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-encouragement. I’m just anti lies.
I’m all for encouraging kids – if I had my own children I think I’d encourage them to work hard at school, to think about what sort of career path might suit them and make an effort to pursue it. But in choosing a career path I’d encourage them to think beyond their dreams – to think seriously about what they’re good at, and also what they might find fulfilling, and also (I know, I’m committing sacrilege here) to think about what there is a need for: first, for plain economic reasons, because if you want to earn a living it’s a good idea to get the sort of work that pays; and also, because I’d want to encourage them to think not only of themselves.
Which brings me to another bit I find disturbing in that speech – it’s this emphasis on going for what you want, as though you are the centre of the universe and all that matters is pleasing yourself. The values Michelle Obama said she’d been raised on included “that you work hard for what you want in life” – and this makes me sad, because our world would be so much poorer if it wasn’t for people who chose to work hard for the benefit of others, to dedicate their lives to helping the poor or to healing the sick or to building an orphanage in a third world country or setting up a charity for helping lepers or… all sorts of career paths that involve an individual putting their own needs and wants to the side and showing that they recognise: it’s not all about me, I’m not the centre of the universe, my own desires aren’t what I’m going to live for.
But that’s a side issue. My main gripe is with the idea that you can do whatever you want as long as you’re up to dreaming big and working hard. I hate this kind of talk not only because it’s a lie, but also because it’s a really cruel thing to say to people who, through no fault of their own, can’t achieve their dreams. The implication is: if you haven’t achieved much then it’s your fault. And I want to shout: no, it is so so so often not your fault. There is such a thing as circumstances beyond your control. Those who do achieve their dreams? Sure, their hard work will have played a part, but so will the circumstances of their birth and education and who they happened to bump into at the right moment and what sort of genetic package deal they were born with and the state of the economy at the time and whether there happened to be a war on just when they were going to college and… tons of things.
Even in America.