“You can't stop progress!” — Muriel's Wedding, 1994
Passing other people feels like progress. There's so little certainty about what our meaningful advances truly are—at work, at school, with family—that it's easier to judge ourselves using relative speed. Who has accomplished what, and by when? Am I behind, or lapping my peers?
But relative speed is an illusion. The arc of our lives is unpredictable, making the meaning in our lives unknowable until time has lapped us.
Live for now; leave the question of “progress” for those times when you can look back and see the trajectory of life.
Growing up in southern California means spending a lot of time being driven around. It means sitting at four-way stops a lot, hanging for the opportunity to make a right turn. Every so often, while sitting for an eternity at a stop as a flood of cars moved past, my dad would say, “Here comes everybody and their brother!”
The absurdity of this comment! Doesn’t ‘everybody’ include the brothers? Why are brothers singled out? I was waiting to make a turn the other day and I said, “here comes everybody.” A batch of cars passed and another appeared, and my son said, “and now here comes the brothers.” Turns out I‘d been saying this too.
Every family has these sayings, collected from odd moments. Stupid jokes no one found funny until they are repeated, over time losing their original meaning, or ridiculous movie dialogue sticks in someone’s ear. At the beach or a pool, my father would call out, “don’t get your feet wet!”, whenever my brother and I would make our way toward the water. We were obedient enough to pause before dismissing it, momentum ruined. I asked my dad once where he gotten that particular joke from: he told me his dad. In one of the few moments as a teen when I unselfishly paid attention to the relatives outside my immediate family, I asked my grandfather from where he’d gotten it. He said from his dad. Four generations of a silly joke.
This is the nature of familial heritability. If such small things as silly sayings can cross multiple generations, imagine the totality of what we pass on, in kindness, strength, and love.
The quantity of elevators in big city hotels is impressive to the point that they become an obstacle to navigate. Will I find several pods of elevators spread around the lobby or lobbies? Do the banks of elevators on each wall go to the same set of floors, since some won’t? Which elevators require a room key to open? Which elevators will let you on but take you only to some of the floors?
At a conference I attended in a hotel in downtown Chicago, the attendees used the east and west banks of elevator doors in the largest pool of elevators to get to their presentations. There was a bank of a half-dozen elevator doors to the north that no one seemed to use. After a day or so of attending, I witnessed a young couple, attached at the hip and wearing casual clothes, glide to the north doors. Without looking at anyone in the busy lobby, their elevator door opened and up they went to some set of floors kept from everyone else. My intuited sense, accurate or not, was of an extremely privileged young couple having access to pathways and options that others did not.
It's hard to not be aware of the massive differences in wealth distribution these days. I tend to mentally frame it as a problem of inequality in opportunity without merit. Without equal funding and opportunity in education, for example, the country can miss out on a child from an unexpected background who would become the next great political leader, or scientist, or artist. We limit ourselves when we structure social tiers of access in advance of any real understanding of individual capabilities and interests or potential.
I doubt the system really benefits the heirs of the extremely wealthy either. Living a life without real consequences due to good fortune could easily create an inability to evaluate real-world options clearly. When no are no stakes and no critical feedback, what personal development occurs? When boundaries do not exist, what need is there for resiliency, creativity, and imagination? So many of our political leaders today merely get by, incapable of forging any kind of lasting coalition or social improvement. An impotent ruling class of mediocre status. What can be the legacy of people who had every resource available to them and accomplished nothing of value?