The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Sunday, January 01, 2023

A New Year's Thought

The year was 1872 and there were no TED talks. But if there were, Frederick Douglass’ classic, Self Made Men,* would have been a post-civil war era's YouTube sensation. But who are these "self-made men" that Douglass refers to? He described them (in the flowery language of his era) this way:

Self-made men are the men who, under peculiar difficulties and without the ordinary helps of favoring circumstances, have attained knowledge, usefulness, power and position and have learned from themselves the best uses to which life can be put in this world, and in the exercises of these uses to build up worthy character. They are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results. In fact they are the men who are not brought up but who are obliged to come up, not only without the voluntary assistance or friendly co-operation of society, but often in open and derisive defiance of all the efforts of society and the tendency of circumstances to repress, retard and keep them down. They are the men who, in a world of schools, academies, colleges and other institutions of learning, are often compelled by unfriendly circumstances to acquire their education elsewhere and, amidst unfavorable conditions, to hew out for themselves a way to success, and thus to become the architects of their own good fortunes. They are in a peculiar sense, indebted to themselves for themselves. If they have traveled far, they have made the road on which they have travelled. If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder. From the depths of poverty such as these have often come. From the heartless pavements of large and crowded cities; barefooted, homeless, and friendless, they have come. From hunger, rags and destitution, they have come; motherless and fatherless, they have come, and may come. Flung overboard in the midnight storm on the broad and tempest-tossed ocean of life; left without ropes, planks, oars or life- preservers, they have bravely buffeted the frowning billows and have risen in safety and life where others, supplied with the best appliances for safety and success, have fainted, despaired and gone down forever.

Guy Shepard explains why Douglass' ideas have merit in 2023:

What I like most about SMM is that it is made to measure for those in the down-and-out bottom quintile of society, yet it serves and instructs the middle and top as well. If it can work to lift a people out of slavery and into thriving, productive citizenship, it has something fundamental to teach everyone, particularly Millennials, too many of whom are not built to survive contact with adversity ...

Douglass’ Self-Made Men captures the functional building blocks that brought our species out of the monkey mix, distilling the clearest path to individual and collective advancement. Everything you ought to have learned in school and in life is here for your taking and benefit. If you truly care for yourself—and are willing to do the required, necessary work—look no further. If you know a young man [or woman], perhaps one who is a victim of circumstance and more than a little angry, Douglass shows how he [she] can harness righteous indignation into earthly success.  

SMM was originally written for the benefit of emancipated slaves. I invite you to compare your life and lot to Douglass’s and his fellow slaves—you’ll consider yourself blessed. Douglass’s autobiography is a first-person rendering of the inhumanity that the slavery and plantation gulag practiced on him and his race. And yet despite it—and in spite of it—Douglass rose to the status of a truly great man, a testament to his race and to the human race. Self-Made Men accounts for both Douglass’s own success and his plan for his people to overcome the ravages of their former servitude. 

If you have been truly harmed in life, this speech offers a path to self-redemption. A therapist can comfort you, but Self-Made Men offers a prescriptive pathway built on self-agency, which therapy too often undermines. I think Jordan Peterson would agree with Douglass on the following point, which stands athwart the therapeutic enterprise:
“Personal independence is a virtue and it is the soul out of which comes the sturdiest manhood. But there can be no independence without a large share of self-dependence, and this virtue cannot be bestowed. It must be developed from within.” [Frederick Douglass]
It turns out that the only way out of poverty, ignorance, and abuse is hard, persistent work guided by commonsense.  
There are many who would be appalled by the notion that "hard, persistent work guided by commonsense" is the antidote for the downtrodden. Such an old-fashioned notion!  After all, the 150-year old wisdom of an ex-slave couldn't possibly be relevant in an era in which many view themselves as victims, and the only "solution" to victimhood is dependency. Or could it?

For example, in the year 2022, there were many who demanded "equity" in all things. Consider what Frederick Douglas has to say on this subject:

The scene presented from this view is as a thousand arrows shot from the same point and aimed at the same object. United in aim, they are divided in flight. Some fly too high, others too low. Some go to the right, others to the left. Some fly too far and others, not far enough, and only a few hit the mark. Such is life. United in the quiver, they are divided in the air. Matched when dormant, they are unmatched in action.

As the year 2023 dawns, Douglass' "TED talk" might be a guide for regaining our footing. It's worth a read in its entirety. If we followed Douglass' advice, we just might reduce the ubiquitous outrage driven by often overwrought perceptions of victimhood. It's wisdom just might lead all of us on a path that will actually help those who struggle to forge a better life.

Happy New Year.


* For those readers who become agitated because Douglass (in the year 1872) used the word "men" as a term referring to all humanity ... please take a long breath. One of the failings of those who become outraged by word usage is that they have become hung up on words, rather than the broader ideas those words convey or the end results that those ideas might achieve. Focus on Douglass' ideas and you'll be okay.