Moving Past the Massive Hit to our Checkbooks
And all the things we must learn to be proud of now, a year later
It has been a year now. A year that has changed us all. In the great wreckage, 2.5M lives have ended around the world, more than 520,000 here at home. (Remember when 30,000 dead seemed like a high number?) Millions of families have had to unceremoniously say goodbye — no funeral, no church gathering, no sitting shiva. Against this backdrop, millions more carry great pain for the other losses they have endured since March 2020: the economic ones. These are the disappointments we feel guilty discussing in public, so I will discuss them here. Because when you’re healthy and beating Covid, it’s hard to complain about the massive hit you have taken in your checkbook. But it has been heartbreaking for millions.
This week alone, I talked to a friend who lost the business he has built for 17 years. Wiped out. After working tirelessly for decades on end, he will walk away with nothing. I chatted with a friend who missed the chance to buy her dream home because the pandemic is wreaking havoc on the real estate market. She and her family will not be moving into the very house she has worked day-and-night-and-weekends to buy. I consoled a friend who had to claim unemployment for the first time in his life because his job simply doesn’t exist anymore. He was let go at his own dining room table. They are but three people in a large sea of hopes dashed and dreams deferred.
Yes, these are first-world problems. White people problems. Middle-class problems. But since I am white and middle-class and living in the first world, these are the problems I hear most about day-to-day. Deep into our culture wars, we seem to have cultivated a public conversation that has no room for the personal disappointments of the middle. But disappointed we are. Because it isn’t actually about the money. The pandemic has killed the very idea of who and what we thought we should be or would be…by 2020, by 40, by “this stage of our life.”
For a middle class that has been upwardly mobile for more than 50 years, and has been taught that upward mobility is who we are, the pandemic has threatened where we see our life going, how we want to or can provide for our kids, and our vision for our future and theirs. Please stop saying we’ll all be okay because the stock market is doing fine. The economic security of this nation is at stake right now. And the pandemic — or the very system that the pandemic has exposed — has broken long-held promises, and we, in turn, have had to break those promises to ourselves and those we love. Zoom in. The personal crisis on our hands is a crisis of pride.
Because for most of my lifetime, myself and those around me have been celebrated for our accomplishments, our financial successes, our climbing and clawing up the ladder. Our pride and our confidence have been buoyed by family, friends, colleagues, and communities that have lavished their validation on us in very specific ways. You have an excellent credit score, so you’re an upstanding citizen. You bought real estate, so you’re a successful adult. You drive a luxury SUV, so you’re “winning.” (I, myself, have none of those three things, so I understand the intense pressure to have them.) When I was a kid, the neighbors tossed coins into our new Caprice Classic and wished us “congratulations,” because a shiny new auto was not merely a purchase, it was an accomplishment. As is a house with a pool. And a double-story foyer.
Yes, we should live our dreams, whatever those dreams may be.* My dreams look different than yours. If you want that house in the cul-de-sac, go for it. If you want a BMW 8 Series convertible, you do you. But I don’t want us to miss the gift of this moment. I struggle to see it fully, too, so I am calling it out to help you, my friends, and to help myself. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to redefine what we are proud of, and the chance to give life to a certain pride in ourselves that we have possibly never nurtured before. And that opportunity is profound.
We have the chance right now to see that we are not the. We are not our FICO scores. We are not our houses, our cars, or our follower list. We are not our Crate and Barrel marble coffee tables (god, they’re gorgeous) or our Senior Vice President titles. We are not our porcelain modern-farmhouse sinks, our landscaping, or our gym memberships. I miss Equinox, but I don’t need Equinox. I am not Equinox. Maybe it’s just me, but I fear and suspect I am not alone. Keeping up with the keeping up has kept many of us up for far too many nights.
Now we have the chance to finally be proud of all the other things that make us both human and pretty incredible, the things that we have not — as a culture — validated or been validated for, the things we have had to be this year: resilient, happy when it’s hard, light when it’s dark, loving, patient, and good to one another. (Yeah, some of us have been real assholes, too, but that’s not what this essay is about.) These are real, concrete, tangible things that, when applauded and encouraged, can bring us relief and some joy. And, when celebrated, they just might bring a happiness and a freedom to our kids that we were not given ourselves as children of the 80s and 90s — a freedom from the pressure of it all.
Zoom and homeschool and merely “surviving it” have been (well, naturally) distracting from a much larger question here: who are we if we’re not constantly climbing the ladder? We are our relationships, our families, our ability to dig deep and persevere. We are our communities and their connectedness. We are our patience and our grace. Maybe it’s time to take true and deep pride in these other parts of who and what we are, so that when we come out of this, we can be a fuller, a more whole, a more humane, and — yes — a better people.
*We should also work hard to help others live theirs. That is the very point of expanding opportunity and access for everyone. More on that another time.