This American Life replayed an episode from 3 years ago, and it got me thinking about the power of optimism, or the power of pessimism. The episode, "#550: Three Miles", tells the story of how a few of different high school students perceived a program that takes kids from a public school that's "97% black and Hispanic [and] ...located in the poorest congressional district in the country, the South Bronx" and takes them on a bus trip to visit "one of New York City's elite private schools [that's] ...70% white... [where annual] tuition was $43,000."
One of the kids has an intense anxiety reaction and wants nothing but to leave, immediately. She sees from the moment she steps on campus that this place is not meant for her and represents a future that she cannot attain. She instantly foresees a future where the "we" to which she belongs is destined to career options where "we" work in service positions to "them," the wealthy, white upper class represented by the private school kids. Another of the kids sees it as an eye-opening introduction to another world she didn't know existed, and it motivates her to work her way into an elite private college and beat the odds by earning her degree. A third student also works his way into an elite private college after the experience but can never shake the notion that he is not worthy of the place he's earned and ultimately fails out.
A decade later, that first woman is still struggling with the idea that class mobility is not possible for "us," and she's working at an "upscale supermarket" that serves exactly the "they" she was sure as a 15-year-old she would some day be serving. She not only is upset that it wasn't available to her, but is upset at herself for accepting that it was unavailable, for not believing she was worthy of it and therefore not fighting to be a part of it.
And that got me thinking about how sociology is really individual psychology in huge numbers. Every one of us is the product of a complex, interconnected network of influences that make us who we are, and all of those individual psyches taken collectively are what create sociological trends. It's fascinating to me how I, the cis white male for whom all possibilities are available, who grew up knowing he would go to college because that's just what people do, whose parents told him daily in the mostly white suburban neighborhood with good schools that he was exceptional, still managed to grow into an adult who believed that he wasn't particularly worthy of love or success, that settling was the best he could hope for. And at the same time, for a host of complicated reasons, a woman whose teachers and peers affirmed to her repeatedly her exceptional abilities, who came within inches of winning a full scholarship to an elite private college, came to believe that none of it was really for her.
One of the phrases used in the story is "American pathological optimism," where we believe that all things are possible for all of us, and the only thing that separates us from success is hard work. The pathological part is maybe in reality, success is not the norm, that class mobility is not the norm but the exception, that if someone with natural abilities doesn't achieve, then maybe "this is what happens all the time, that the supermarket might be full of Melanies." To believe otherwise is a pathology.
I know that for the Melanies and Raquels and Jonathans of the world, there are deep, wide, systemic barriers that make it infinitely harder, both to achieve and to believe that achievement is even a possibility. But for me (myself, personally), the individual living and working in a system in which all the advantages are mine, it doesn't matter what the reality is. It doesn't matter if I actually rise, actually succeed, actually move up into a new level of economic success. What matters is that it is better for me, it is better for my daily, individual health and happiness, to believe. Having lived under the dark cloud of self-doubt, of fear, of flying under the radar lest I be found out to be a fraud, and now living under the bright sun of believing that I am worthy of wonderful things, I would rather live in the sunshine. It is better for my daily health and well-being to believe I am a good person capable of great things. To believe in possibility is better for me than to believe in impossibility.
Relationships that affirm our value rather than confirm our shortcomings, that lift us up and allow us to lift up others, are a huge help. But I've had relationships like that and still did not believe, and so did Melanie. Even after crossing over myself, I'm still not sure what the alchemy is, that pushes a person from one side of that line to the other. I think that's why I'm drawn to stories of transformation. Maybe someday I'll figure it out.