Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend suggested that I feature stories about people who lost their jobs but ended up triumphant, which got me to thinking about this seductive and increasingly iconic Great Recession storyline.
The appetite for such stories is easy to understand. They’re a welcome antidote to the anxious uncertainty that pervades our times. They fuel our optimism, calm our fears. They tell us that no matter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession—and reinvented themselves along the way,” is how the online magazine Salon describes its series “My Brilliant Second Career.”
But for all this narrative’s compelling appeal, I’ve found myself balking at it, uneasy with the vision of a fantasy future squared off against the past. In particular, I worry that in our eager rush towards happier times, we risk losing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s difficulties as things that “shouldn’t have happened to me” rather than as a shared experience that shaped and transformed our lives.
Our individualist culture thrives on hierarchies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Success vs. Failure. Winner vs. Loser. It’s easy to fixate on securing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a challenging stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to forget. That was then. This is now. I am not that person anymore. (Thank God, I am not that person!)
But there’s another way through such transitions, one that involves expanding to encompass even the hardest parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when reading my friend Allegra Jordan’s beautiful guest post on how the abrupt end of her marriage, which also coincided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Innovation Abbey consulting firm. What I especially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present necessarily coexist. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Why does this matter? Because once we accept that our lives are inherently messy, imperfect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an endless progression upwards. We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, successes or failures, winners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.