Countless observers have written about how being born into privilege does not inherently make someone a success, nor does being born into “want” inherently doom someone to a life of limitations and failure.
Recently I watched two movies—I Can Only Imagine about Christian singer and abuse victim Bart Millard…and Chappaquiddick about Ted Kennedy’s infamous car accident in which political aide Mary Jo Kopechne was killed—that were a stunning contrast in the power of core values to drive a person on his/her path.
In I Can Only Imagine, Bart Millard suffers violent physical and emotional abuse from his father and is deserted by his mother. Yet after his father gets cancer, Bart forgives him and forges a new relationship, eventually pursuing a musical career and writing the hit song “I Can Only Imagine.” Given Bart’s background, it’s curious where his moral compass and his capacity to forgive came from, yet it was very powerful, protecting him through his hell and driving him on his path.
Contrast this with the movie Chappaquiddick, which tells the story of Ted Kennedy, who was born into one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country and whose path was prepaved for success. In spite of his good fortune, his moral compass drove him to not only deny his role in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne but to create a false narrative around the accident, lying about his role and actions before, during and after. While Kennedy eventually went on to accomplish much as a US Senator, his guilt and integrity always remained in question.
Millard is not the only person to succeed despite hardship and tragedy, nor was Kennedy the only one to turn lemonade into lemons despite the privileged world he was born into and the opportunities he had. The newspapers and history books are jam-packed with stories of people on both sides of the spectrum. Alexander Hamilton was the poster child for someone who came from the wrong side of the tracks but was driven toward a greater purpose and fulfilled on that dream. Oprah Winfrey, child of a single mother, a victim of sexual abuse and pregnant at 14, became one of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world.
On the flip side, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, New York City and the like are riddled with children suffering from “affluenza”—too much money and too little motivation.
What is it that makes one person forgive and another lie? What drives a person to push past all hurdles to get to his/her goal, while another undermines the many opportunities available? I would posit that it’s the existence of the hurdles in the first place and the expectations that an individual will overcome them to do just that.
Talk to anyone who has faced a serious challenge, and he will tell you that the challenge helped form him. Finding the strength to fight back from a serious injury, parental problems, substance abuse or simply the day-to-day challenges of growing up in a competitive environment surrounded by distractions and temptations is no easy feat.
Millard had to find the strength within himself to face each day, despite being afraid that his father would again beat him. He had to build belief in himself, since no one was rooting for him at home.
On the other hand, in Chappaquiddick, Kennedy acknowledges that his older brothers were the stars and that he was the “last man standing.” After the car accident, when Kennedy finally admits to his father, Joseph Kennedy, what he had done, Joe immediately surrounds his son with his political machine to “fix the problem.” Ted not only doesn’t man up to the error of his ways, his father removes his option to do that.
We all love movies about underdogs. We cheer when they overcome their oppressors…when the team from the other side of the tracks wins the championship game.
Yet when I look at the growing wave of messaging telling people that they are victims of “them”—the other political party…the wealthy…the boss…the powerful businesses…the haters—I am sad and frightened.
Assuming that the world is comprised of the powerful versus the powerless…looking to legislate protection or prescribe medication for every type of pain—removes the option of opportunity. It tells people that they can’t achieve on their own. Helicopter parents and now lawn mower parents are telling the next generation that they are incapable of facing their challenges and achieving success on their own.
I live by a credo—we all have far more power over our lives than we give ourselves credit for. We just have to have the strength and resources to assess our situations and act accordingly.
Our country was founded and has thrived based on the drive of risk-takers who followed their paths. Every generation has faced challenges of one kind or another, but the ability to dig in and find the fortitude to move forward has helped us achieve all that we have.
If we strip ourselves of our raw skills and the self-confidence that we can face and overcome challenges, then we are doomed to spiral in a whirlpool of victimhood.
It’s not where you come from, it’s what you do with it. Your choice. Your power.