Ross: The myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps

Mar 15, 2023, 8:33 AM
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Last week in the New York Times, there was a column written by Alissa Quart headlined:  “Can We Put an End to America’s Most Dangerous Myth?” She points out that most of us in this country are raised to see independence as a pre-eminent virtue, and it’s a myth.

I see it in the way I behave around our grandchildren – how many times have I said, “let’s see if you can do that yourself, yay!  You did it yourself!”  At work, we are taught to set goals and to always be achieving more.

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And a lot of us take that to the extreme by assuming everyone has those magical bootstraps that, if only you pull on them hard enough, will fix everything that’s wrong in your life. When in fact, you’ll either rip the bootstraps off or spend the rest of your days hopelessly hunched over.

My daughter served in the Peace Corps, and we spent two unforgettable weeks with her in West Africa, including a week in her village – where, except for the one paved road, life hadn’t changed much in 2,000 years.

And as poor as that village was by our standards, most everybody had help – help with childrearing, harvesting, preparing food, making repairs, running the school, and just someone to talk to. And this was in Niger, which at the time was close to the poorest country in the world, but people found a way to get along by depending on each other.

Yes, there’s a cost to that: there’s no privacy, and a visitor could open your door at any time.

But in her column, Alissa argues Americans should allow themselves a little vulnerability and learn how to “accept aid with grace” by recognizing that no one succeeds alone.

And yet so many politicians punch down on people who need help.

Is there any good reason why getting reliable child care should be the struggle that it’s become? Or why a politician would want to make medical care, or an education, harder to get?

Alissa argues it’s because we equate dependence with weakness instead of seeing it as an essential social connection.

I admit I like to think I’m ruggedly independent, self-sufficient, with sturdy bootstraps.

But sometimes, as I drive to work, with my hands properly positioned at 10 and 2, I look straight ahead at all that pavement – the bridges, the tunnels, the landscaping, the towers downtown– and I ask myself, “I depend on all of this, but how much of it did these hands actually build?”

We all know the answer. Which, by the way, is why I admire anybody who works in construction.

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Ross: The myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps