Grace and Bootstraps (#310)

On NPR’s Fresh Air this week, listeners were introduced to a new film being released entitled Moonlight. The film tells the story of a young man’s life growing up in a housing project in Miami. He endures bullying for being gay, but the greatest challenge he faces is growing up in a home where his mother is addicted to drugs. The film is based on playwright Tarell McCraney’s life. “There were times when we were without food and the lights got turned off often,” McCraney says. “If I did get money from an aunt or a grandmother or whoever, more often than not my mom would find a way to take it or talk me out of it, or sometimes the TV would disappear, or sometimes the furniture would disappear.” With no father in the picture, the local drug dealer became the nearest thing to a father figure McCraney had.

McCraney’s childhood resembles J. D. Vance’s childhood that he writes about in his book Hillbilly Elegy. Vance’s mother also suffered from drug-addiction and he talks about the numerous men who came in and out of his life as supposed father figures. Vance recalls growing up in Middletown, Ohio (right near my hometown) and often not knowing where the next meal would come from or where he would be sleeping on a particular night. Although he did have some stability from his grandparents, his grandmother was known to have taken out a pistol from time to time and shoot it at her husband in their kitchen. She claimed she never intended to harm him because she was too good of a shot. She missed shooting him on purpose.

Both McCraney and Vance have remarkable stories. Both excelled in spite of their childhoods. McCraney went on DePaul University’s theatre program and then Yale after that. In 2013, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.” Vance put himself through Ohio State University and then Yale Law School and now has a position with a major firm in San Francisco. Both young men were able to make it out of their difficult life circumstances and thrive.

With these two stories, it would be easy for us to conclude that if these two young men “made it,” then everyone who has had to endure similar childhoods should be able to do the same. It’s the old “bootstrap” argument, as in “they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” so what’s preventing everyone else from doing the same? I grant you it is theoretically possible for everyone to do it, after all, McCraney and Vance did it, but there are factors that we often ignore when such examples are trotted out as proof.

Life can be hard for all of us even when things go our way much of the time, even when we have had a supportive, nurturing home life growing up. Blaming the poor and others who have “two strikes against them” even before the enter kindergarten doesn’t help anyone. Yes, we should celebrate those like McCraney and Vance who have overcome so much in their lives to excel as they have. But we also need compassion for those who have not, who were not able to climb out of their difficult childhood circumstances.

A little grace is in order when we’re tempted to blame others for their lot in life.


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