A while back, like last July, there was a great deal of hoopla about President Obama’s comment, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Okay, I can see how the hardworking business people of this country could get really sideways about that, but reading the entire comment in context it completely makes sense. After all, in context, what Obama was really saying is that others have paved the way to make us successful…no man or woman or business person is an island.
I’ve recently heard people, friends and colleagues, espousing the ideal of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”. I have been thinking about this a great deal lately, in conjunction with President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” statement. I have a lot of questions. I mean, I love the idea of rugged strength and determination overcoming all obstacles, but…I wonder…what if the bootstraps were to break? Who’s wearing the boots? If I’m wearing the boots, who’s supporting the ground the boots are supposedly firmly grounded on while I do my own bootstrap pulling up activities? I don’t know. Kind of makes me wonder.
So often people experiencing hard times are accused of taking the victim mentality just because they are experiencing hard times. Yes, I know. There are people out there who are making choices that lead them to a place of dependency on others’ good graces, whatever form those good graces come in. There are many who appear content to live this way. They milk the kindness of other people and “the system” for their benefit all the while escaping the responsibility of every citizen to give back and help pay for the freedoms and luxuries our great country affords us. They do this, in spite of the fact that they are able to do more for themselves. For them, it is a lifestyle choice rather than a helping hand in a time of need. We could accuse them of being lazy. We could say it is the system’s fault. We could point fingers at a number of different reasons why this is the case, and all of it, to some degree, will be valid. All of it, to some degree, will also be bunk. I know of people who have received more in food stamps than I, as a working professional and single mother of four children, can ever afford to pay for groceries. It is these very same people who sell their food stamps for money. This should not be. I agree. But not every person who is a victim has a victim mentality. And not every person who needs assistance at some time or another requires it forever. Not everyone collecting welfare is a victim. And not everyone, experiencing hard times is able to get themselves out of their hard times on their own. Sometimes, even the most stalwart need a helping hand….or a miracle.
I, myself, have been a “bootstraps” person for most of my life. I figured if I just set my mind to it, I could make it happen. And…generally…that was the case…when I was younger…and prettier. Two divorces and four children later and, try as I might, no matter how hard I work, or how hard I try, or how much effort and genius I put into things, I can’t catch a break financially these days. Well, okay, I lied. My water bill was half what it was last month and I’ve paid off the surgeon that did my cancer surgeries this year. Wow. Big deal. I’m still pretty, but the wrinkles are beginning to be obvious. No one has a clue what my age is unless I tell them (they often guess I’m in my mid-30’s, I’m not). Wow. Big deal. I have worked hard to pay off debt that belonged to me only because an ex-spouse incurred it. I have experienced drama and demise of one disaster after another none of which I was responsible for. Try as I might, I can’t seem to catch a break. I really am trying. I’m not taking handouts. I’m working extra hours. I pay my taxes, my insurance, my bills. I’m not getting ahead. When I am able to get a little bit together, something unexpected and totally out of my control descends upon my life to evaporate the savings as quickly as I deposited it. I mean seriously. I couldn’t control my getting cancer. I had no say in the decision about health insurance costs and premiums and deductibles. I have no control over my daughter, one very normal Sunday morning, getting into an accident that meant yet another cost ($500 deductible) and stress (What the hell are we going to do for transportation now?).
I have changed my opinion about the bootstraps thing. I mean, sure, people can have an amazing impact on the course of their own lives. A child from poverty can go to school, do well, make plans and achieve great things. A child from wealth can squander all the benefit he/she started out with and end up being pretty much nothing. We all have great power to do great things with the energy and intelligence we’ve been given, in spite of our circumstances. I still firmly believe this. Sometimes, there are things that happen that are just beyond our control. Sometimes these things are so monumental or so continual that we can’t, no matter how hard we try, change our circumstances. We are, in essence, pulling as hard as we can on our bootstraps, making progress even, but someone, something cut the bootstrap just a little higher up. I know. This is tough for people who’ve never really known hardship to fathom. If life has always been pretty easy for you, it is difficult to imagine others’ struggles.
This bootstrap cutting from higher up has been my life this year. No matter how hard I try, I can’t catch a break. I worked extra hours, I cut back on expenses, I even moved and made colossal changes in lifestyle to try to get ahead. Under normal circumstances, the efforts I’ve expended would have paid off. What I didn’t account for was the stuff in life that no one can really ever account for. Early this year, I knew it was going to be bad when the biopsy came back with results that required surgeries, radiation and additional out-of-pocket medical bills that I could not have planned for. (Remember, I’m a divorced, single female trying to support four children on my own salary which is decent, but not what someone with a graduate degree in a professional position should be earning.) I also filed for bankruptcy, and that has not gone well. I was assigned a trustee who is Evil Incarnate and completely non-communicative, so I couldn’t plan for the surprise billing she threw on me in late September. A billing of over $738. In spite of all my attempts, and my attorney’s attempts earlier this year to avoid this scenario, it happened and it is beyond my control. To add insult to injury, my daughter recently was involved in a fender bender. She rear-ended someone. No big deal, but the deductible is $500. Since I just paid $817 on this vehicle to service the transmission and replace brakes, rotors and all just a month prior, I have absolutely no discretionary spending or savings to get this vehicle repaired. It isn’t because I haven’t tried. The point I am trying to make is this: From cancer costs, to Evil Incarnate Trustee, to daughter wrecking car, to insurance deductible, to unexpected but required car repairs, none of this was in my control.
What the bootstraps people don’t seem to take in to consideration (and what I didn’t consider for years) is the fact that sometime shit just happens. Sometimes that shit can be dealt with quickly, and other times the shit just keeps coming and you can’t recover before the next load drops. Such has been my life this year, which gives me a greater appreciation for the words President Obama uttered when he said, “You didn’t build that.” I understand the value of having others around to collaborate with and to support you in your efforts. No man or woman is an island. Though success does require our own initiative and efforts. Our own initiative and efforts can’t always guarantee success. There’s just too much out there that we can’t plan on, budget for, or anticipate. Sometimes the bad fortune rains heavily on the parade we are trying to conduct in life. These days, I can’t catch a freaking break because the shit just keeps dropping. It keeps dropping in spite of my good choices, in spite of my efforts to be a responsible, contributing, law-abiding citizen of this great country. Sometimes, the bootstraps don’t help. Sometimes, your success is predicated on the kindness or efforts of others, whether you are willing to admit this or not. Sometimes it is just complete chance or fortune. Sometimes it’s a miracle.
Last month, as I endured the worst month ever since my divorce and trying to feed a family of four on $350 for an entire month, I needed a windfall. I even whispered the prayer, “God, I know you’ve done miracles for other people. I’ve tried. I worked. I couldn’t plan on the demand from the BK attorney. I need help. I need a windfall. And not a $500 or $1,000 windfall either. I’m not asking to win the lottery, but I need help with the car and Christmas.” Okay, sometimes in desperation, we beg for the miracle.
Call was at 12:30. My daughter had stressed how important it was to be on time to the call for her show, so I made sure I was ready. !2:15. 12:30. She drove up in my Durango at 12:45. I didn’t wait. I hurried out, locked up the house and turned to climb into our beloved SUV that we affectionately dubbed, “Rango.” I glanced in the window and panic shot through my psyche. My daughter was in tears, her eye makeup streaming down her face. My daughter is not prone to obvious displays of emotion. I was alarmed.
“What happened?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
She sputtered and sobbed and finally got the words out. “I was in an accident. My phone vibrated. The sound startled me. I looked down. I hit the car in front of me.”
Every mother’s nightmare.
My daughter, who is usually so very careful and cautious behind the wheel had rear-ended an F-350 which tore out the fog light on our vehicle, leaving a gaping hole. The Durango, otherwise, seemed unharmed.
As insurance issues tend to do, this one unfolded in slow motion, as did my understanding of exactly what was going on.
“Oh no,” I thought. “Another at-fault accident on our insurance and a $500 deductible to fix. Great. How’s this going to work.”
Remember, I had $350 to my name and I had to feed my family with this and I still had most of the month left. I drug my feet for a week getting my car into a body shop to get an estimate.
“I’d like to take your car back to my tech to have a look at this,” the young handsome adjuster said. He was getting to know me by name. This was the second time this year my vehicle had reported to his shop for repairs.
Before he took the car to the garage, I asked, “So, what are the chances that this vehicle is actually totaled?” He smiled, “I’m not sure, but that frame is bent pretty far back there.”
We waited. My daughter cried. I waited. As I waited it dawned on me. If the vehicle is totaled, then there will have to be some sort of cash settlement. I glanced over at my daughter and whispered, “Honey, don’t despair. This could be a blessing in disguise.”
Three weeks later, and I am I going to pick up my 2012 Nissan Altima tomorrow (today). Never in a million years would I have anticipated ever driving, let alone being able to afford a recent model anything, let alone a vehicle which is fuel-efficient, comfortable, reliable, has low miles on it and is absolutely luxurious in a color I like! I would love to sit down and detail all the ups and downs between then and now, but it would be tedious for you though it was an exciting ride for me. The insurance settlement came in much higher than I dared hope. It provided a substantial down on this new car, and will replace the money that Evil Incarnate took out of our Christmas/Emergency Fund coffers. In addition, it will allow me to pay off the rest of my medical bills and pay down my credit cards. It is an amazing windfall, and not a little one either. And one further thing…there was nothing I could do to make it happen. It just did. I’m grateful, but I’m fully aware that, “I didn’t build that.”
Sometimes bootstraps and strength alone are simply not enough. Sometimes we all need a little good fortune or a helping hand. I got an assist through some bad/good luck and a bunch of events that were beyond my control which happened to turn out well. They could just have easily turned out badly, leaving me without transportation at all. I’m really grateful for how things turned out, but I did nothing other than make my insurance payment to deserve this. I didn’t do any of this on my own, but all of it seems to be the turning point for my little family as the savings in gas costs and repair costs will far outweigh the new car payment, plus it will put money in the bank for us. I just wonder, does this make me a victim or does it mean I’m able to recognize that I am not all-sufficient. I can appreciate the miracles in my life, even when they walk in clothed in disaster.