Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I read an interesting piece (subscription only) in the Sunday Globe Ideas section yesterday. With a headline of “The Triumph of Coping,” the article is a conversation with Jennifer Silva, who finds that, “the American Dream is being replaced by a new kind of story.” In a series of 100 interviews with working class people, she found that, in place of the old story of unlimited opportunity for upward mobility (The American Dream), a new tale of struggle against “emotional problems, mental illness, family chaos, and addiction… To her surprise, hard-won emotional self-management was often viewed with as much pride as diplomas or marriage certificates.” The context for this finding is that current employment situation, on the whole, has replaced well-paying, relatively stable jobs with uncertain, low-paid jobs in the retail and food service industry, resulting in “financial instability that hurts community and personal relationships.”
I interpret this finding, based only on the scant information in the article, that success (or finding happiness) in life comes from a sense of having faced the hardships out there today and managed to come through on one’s own. The mythic American dream has been replaced by what I would consider a pathological variant. The positive individualism characteristic of America of old has become a new sort of individualism finding happiness by discovering what’s “wrong with you … and make it your job to fix it yourself.” She calls this process “privatizing happiness.” Wow! I hope she is not right but her work looks to be well-done.
She slips in a paragraph near the end about those in her survey that were “emotionally or economically successful.” Here’s her response.
The few people I interviewed who objectively achieved upward mobility by getting college degrees and then using them to get good jobs, what really struck me about them is that they had good networks. They had people in their community who could help them figure out what kind of jobs and then how to go to school. They have someone translating the tools and knowledge and skills they needed to work their way up. Otherwise people are trying really hard, but without knowing the system they often make choices that set them even further back.
I don’t think it takes a lot of sociological research to come up with her findings. Silva, with a Ph.D. in sociology, is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Humans are social animals. We evolved in families, then tribes, then communities of many tribes and now a global, highly interconnected world. Humans have always coped; happiness and other measures of success in life, except for a very few privileged people, have always come only through human efforts, both toilsome and innovative. The headline writer for the Globe article has little or no sense of our species’ history. Coping is a natural human capability, not something to see as a triumph. I might have written “The Sadness of Coping Today.”
The focus is better placed on the isolated context for those finding happiness through their battles with loneliness, mental dysfunction, family breakdown, and other abnormalities of life for many today. Abnormal because a sense of the normal lurks in the background in the myth of the American Dream: happily married with 2 or 3 kids in a lovely house on a lot with a beautiful lawn and a diploma on the wall, coming home from a great job to dinner prepared by Mom, and so on. I must admit that my own early adult life was a bit like that for a time. But was that ever normal? There’s no such dinner waiting when Mom now is the breadwinner or the only source of money in many homes. For many, there is not even a home nor job.
I’m a child of the Great Depression era that had many of the same features as today, but also some critical differences. Life’s hard circumstances, created by the basic workings of an unstable economic system, were mitigated by relationships. Some were created by the great government programs that put people to work, but in the company of others. In my own case, my parents lived in an apartment that they could not always pay the rent for. The landlord let them stay saying he kne`w that ultimately they would be able to, and they did. There was a sense of care both in the big picture and the small.
Silva’s data show the importance of care. Those in a network of caring relationships found themselves in happier places that those, either by choice or necessity, coped with life all on their own. Taking a leap, I suspect that whatever positive feelings of success or happiness ensue from an isolated, individualistic encounter with life are empty feelings, empty of the satisfaction coming from successful, empathic relations. I hope Silva is wrong in finding that this new story of winning against all odds without help from others is becoming the new normal. The need for and difficulty of coping in the present economic and special conditions of the US is different from that of the past, but it is not necessary to go it alone. A long time ago, people understood that, “Misery loves company.”