Steep hills of life’s dreams

A leading sociologist summarized “The Deep Story,” the “subjective prism,” shared by folks she interviewed over several years, reflecting their hope, fear, pride, resentment, and anxiety-all Tea Party friends who agreed with her metaphorical story. “We all have a deep story” (135);* this is theirs (abridged).

It begins with an endless line of people ascending a steep hill, sometimes looking ahead and behind. Those nearest you (i.e., those interviewed) are also white, older, male, and predominantly Christian — some university grads, some not. On the other side of the hill is the American Dream.

At the back of the line are the poor, people of color, uneducated, young, and elderly. You wish them well; but you worked hard to be where you are in line and believe they always haven’t. But the line is hardly moving; sometimes seems to be going backward. You’re patient but frustrated. And you focus on the line ahead of you, especially those nearing the top.

You’ve heard and believe that the American Dream is about progress; you’re already better off than previous generations. But you’re standing still, wondering if you’ll be there forever. You’re a positive person, wanting to help your family and church; but the line isn’t moving and you can’t afford to. You’re proud of your morality and clean living; but many ahead in line say your morals are outmoded. You remember, instead, years past when morals and lives were simpler.

Now you notice people cutting in line ahead of you! You obey the rules but they don’t. With so many cutting ahead, you are in effect moving backwards. Government gives them preferences and “affirmative action” in universities, jobs, and other advantages you don’t have. Who are they? People whose roots aren’t American; women taking men’s jobs; immigrants working for less; refugees using your tax money and darkening white America. Even endangered species of animals take precedence over jobs. And how did the Obamas get so far ahead?

The line cutters are moving ahead, unlike your own kind who made America great. You are irritated and resent their insolence. Even Fox News reinforces your deep story with its own daily reminders.

Barack Obama once monitored the line but supported the line cutters; he was on their side. He couldn’t convey your pride in America. “As a source of honor, being an American is more important to you than ever, given the slowness of this line to the American Dream, and given disrespectful talk about whites and men and Bible-believing Christians.” Thus, “you’ll have to feel American in some new way — by banding with others who feel as strangers in their own land”(140; italics added).

Thus ends their “deep story” of grievances. But, in 2016 similarly aggrieved voters banded together to make America great again by electing a new line monitor.

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However, whether anything has improved (by 2019) is arguable: elderly, retired, under-payed, poor, and precariat stagnate at the line’s bottom; those at the head of the line thrive more than before; and those in the middle are in mounting conflict over the American Dream, yet standing still or backsliding.

Nonetheless there’s another story about a hill that makes a different point: the Greek “myth of Sisyphus.”** In it, Sisyphus disobeys the gods and is punished to push a large rock up a steep hill for eternity. No matter how hard he tries, it always rolls back. But even in the face of such absurdity, Sisyphus starts over and over again. Life’s meaning comes for him from continuing to push on, perhaps trying different routes and pushing techniques. But, alas, it never will be attained; the end for mere mortals is the end of life.

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This re-telling of the myth of Sisyphus has the rock rolling backward with each attempt. But it isn’t difficult to imagine, instead, that from time to time he reaches a small but level stage where the rock can stay put. A place to pause, rest, and to survey… how far he’s come, the world around and below him, and the route remaining above him — that he might still choose to pursue (since there’s no punishment of the gods in this version).

However, with the rock securely in place, he can decide to stay put: he can take pride in how far up he has travelled; the hurdles he has overcome; and the satisfaction of accomplishments reached to this point on his chosen route — whether having started from a dis-advantageous lower point or from a somewhat higher stage.

He is relieved with the stability of the place he successfully reached. He can observe others continue to scramble with their own hills of upward aspirations. Such ambitions may lead to rewards or disappointments, but these hills are nonetheless their choices.

*Arlie R. Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land (2016), 135-151.

**Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955.

Thomas A. Regelski is an emeritus distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to tom.regelski@helsinki.fi.

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