Bootstrap Loving: On Progress

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 6:01pm

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Illustration by Sadhana Ramaseshadri

The time is late. I do not even have to check my clock to tell. What started as a crusade in my bed has slowly crept its way to having set my alarm on my phone, plugging my phone into my charger and sitting cross-legged on my carpeted apartment floor. Outside, the normal buzz of campus, so alive during the day, has died down. It is hard to believe it is the same place during the day. My roommate has already fallen asleep and even the drunk party-goers have stumbled back to their places.

The white glow from my smartphone illuminates my face as I scroll through organization after organization on Maize pages, another thing to pad the résumé, another thing to self-improve. The familiar touch of flesh on glass guides my thumb along. “Come on Young, just put it to rest,” I think, but my thumb keeps scrolling, unable to silence the voice in my head.

There are not many things that Americans praise more than the rugged individual, one of the bedrocks of American ideals. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. The value of a life well-lived determined by the wear and tear of your boots. Perhaps even to the point you aren’t even wearing boots anymore and are just walking barefoot with cracked skin and blisters. Society lauds the student who is part of 17 organizations and somehow still goes to class and excels.

The interesting thing about America is that it is not enough to just have people suffering in our country, but there are institutions, policies and groups that are established to keep the poor and marginalized suffering. Society looks at homeless folks and people with addictions and boxes them and their humanity into the effort they put in life and are so eager to see them suffer because of it.

The reality society has to face is that the stereotypical welfare mom who’s working several part-time jobs is not putting in any less “effort” than the CEO of the Fortune 500 company. Yet, society never lauds the mom, but we always hear about the CEO. Do we buy this message because it is easier to do so? Do we simplify the issue down to lack of effort just because it removes our responsibility to others and the weight on our moral conscious if the real issue is more complex?  Society does not want to acknowledge mental health. It does not want to acknowledge upbringing and access to opportunities and resources. Rather society sees what it sees and attributes it to laziness.

Society is so caught up on in our nation of fairness because people expect things for their hard work. If people work hard, then things should automatically be given to them. It is not fair if others are just as successful for minimal effort. People are so eager to make other people try just as hard too, using the few anomalies of individuals living off the system to justify a whole. The person serving food in the dining hall who is trying to get to medical school has all the same hopes and ambitions as the one who has all the tutors in the world.

And the thing is, I bought this message, hard. The biggest lie I ever believed in. It also was not even just about myself; it affected how I viewed other people too. In third grade, I participated in a bike race for elementary school students. After the race, I was eating pizza with my family when a homeless man walked by and started rummaging through the trash for remnants of food. I asked my dad why that man was looking through the garbage. Wasn’t that gross? Seeing an opportunity for a life lesson, my dad told me that was how people ended up if they didn’t make good life decisions and choices. If they didn’t work hard enough. I have forgotten the rest of the conversation from that day, but I will always remember those words. In high school, it became the reason my peers were in regular classes and struggling to pass. In my ignorant view, they just did not work hard enough (no longer do I hold these beliefs).  

More effort became the answer to everything for me. Don’t like how your life is shaping up? Simple. Just try harder. Always forward. Crunch every minute out of every day. Just do it. If you’re not going somewhere, then you’re not worthy. If you’re not producing, then you’re falling behind. Leaders and the best. So I numbed myself. I got busy to the point where it all blended together. Escalating to the summer after my freshman year when I had to quit everything instead of being able to achieve everything I had set to do. Procrastinating was never my issue. Instead, it was always seeking more. At least this way, I was “moving” or “progressing” onto something else. It became a weight on my shoulders that I did not know how to be without. I craved the anxiety being busy gave me. I became my harshest critic; nitpicking every little thing about me. If I was obsessed enough, then things would work out.

I am not saying setting goals and striving is bad. However, with rates of anxiety and depression for students climbing every year, this obsessive, borderline-stalker love affair with effort is toxic and must stop. It is perpetually feeding this cycle to the point other people become seen as nuisances and hindrances to personal goals and ambitions. We will continue to achieve things if we keep the status quo, but will we get there in pieces or will we get there enjoying the process? Life doesn’t have to feel like a series of putting out fires. Stop and take a pause. Take time for self-care, not only for you but because it will affect those around you as well. Whether it be personal, career or societal, let’s aim for progress that is truly progress rather than just the results. Let’s stop the comparison game of always defining success by borderline burnout. Hard work and dedication are important, but at what cost?

I confess my love affair with hard work, my own Shakespearean sonnet. It is the thing I am not complete without, the thing that keeps me up at night. It’s the thing that causes me to ignore my own well-being. You see, diligence is intimately tied with my Asian yellow immigrant skin. It symbolizes my mother, always serving. During the week, she tenderly cares for patients at the hospital; at home, she cooks food and does laundry and, on the weekends, she is serving at church. Her hands are never still. Diligence is my father’s shoulders. Always the first to clean the snow in the neighborhood. Always the first one to volunteer and mow the grass at the community pool. Always carrying the sacrifice for my family. When the work is gone, I yearn for it. Someday I might achieve all that I have set out to be, but it will always be a journey dealing with this integral part of me.