And vs. Or


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.