The Myth of the Self-Made Man

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(Following was excerpted from my Heretic’s Guide to the Bible study of the same name. Check out more about the weekly study HERE, or click the banners at the top or bottom of this article.)

All of these texts this week remind me of the parable of the faithful servants which comes up to chapters later Luke, in chapter 12. Basically, the moral of the parable is “to whom much is given, much is also expected.”

One of the biggest illusions of so many at least in the United States is that of the “self-made man.” We love the idea of someone who comes up from nothing, and through hard work and determination, finds themselves “blessed” by the fruits of their rigorous labor. Granted, this happens sometimes, and it’s an inspiring story when it does, but it’s only really part of the story.

Yes, I worked hard for the grades I got in school. I withstood rejection after rejection in more than one career for finding some measure success in my chosen vocation of writing. But if I were to credit myself primarily for being here, it would be a tremendous act of hubris and self-deception. We are far more interdependent than we realize, or at least than we care to admit.

I think back to when I work in a small public school in Pueblo, Colorado, which was at risk of losing its federal funding because of its poor standardized test scores. I was given the task of working intensively with a small group of teachers to turn around the hardest academic cases with the hopes of saving the school.

There was one little girl who was particularly bright, but who hardly said a word when more than one person was present. To call her a wallflower would be an understatement. It was obvious that she was dealing with some sort of trauma back home. And while she did perfectly well with any task I put before her, she often struggled to stay awake, even through the shortest lessons.

Finally, I asked her what was wrong. Wish you not getting enough sleep? Was she bored? Had she not had a good breakfast? It was then that she told me about her mother, who was trying to raise her three children alone, but to have a revolving door of sorts for boyfriends and other hangers-on who frequented the house. There would party into the late hours, and more often than not once alcohol was involved, things got violent. She was afraid to go to sleep because she felt responsible for her brothers and for her mom.

The last thing on her mind was getting a good education and thinking about her future. Tell me that girl has the same opportunities that any other girl her age has in this land of the free and home of the brave. Tell me that a child doesn’t have to worry about where their next meal comes from or whether they can sleep through the night without harm doesn’t have an advantage.

To those who have such advantages – and particularly, those in positions of power and authority to do something about the systemic poverty, hopelessness, violence and oppression that help manifest these issues – woe unto us who stand by, congratulating ourselves for our good fortune, while doing nothing for our neighbor.

Click to check out the full version of Heretic’s Guide to the Bible Blog HERE
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  • smrnda

    Thanks for this great post. I grew up immensely privileged and whenever discussions of success, effort and merit show up, I make a big point to tell people that I would have had to have worked awfully hard to screw things up, while other people would have had to work extremely hard for a much smaller chance at making it. Having 2 college professors for parents makes for a lot of advantages.

    On another blog another poster kind of chastised me with ‘what, you think if you’d been the kid of a single mom working at Wal-Mart you wouldn’t have made it?’ I just said “yeah, I’d probably have ended up doing the same thing.”

  • J

    Hi Christian, been trying to get a hold of you for a few days without success. Phone tag, y’know?

    Anyway, I’m sorry to say it but the World Council of Heretics board meeting had a meeting last week and as a result of that, I’m afraid I have to tell you that your services are no longer needed.

    Yes. And I have to admit that this has been coming for a while now. If you look back over your work these past few months and years, it may be that even you know that. Y’see, we at the WCH expect a bit more from our associates. Some actual substantive disagreement with mainstream theology, y’know?

    And it’s not just you, you understand. I’m afraid a lot of these notices are going to be coming down over the next few weeks. Rob Bell, Fred Clark, James McGrath, Francis Schaeffer, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz Weber: All of you guys are getting letters from HR, I’m afraid.

    Trouble is, as I say, ‘heretic’ actually means something here at WCH. And you guys just aren’t delivering. As near as Management can tell, you’ve all been leaning your unusual hair, beards and/or tattoos as the sum of your ‘heresy’ for a while now.

    I mean be honest, if not with me than with yourself: Do you actually dispute the doctrine of the trinity in any significant way? Salvation by faith? Sufficiency of scripture?

    I thought not.

    Debbie from HR will be around in a little while to talk about your severance and health insurance. I’m sorry it’s come to this, I really am.

    • Christian Piatt

      1. Trinity is a human-constructed metaphor
      2. I’m a universalist
      3. Scripture is our effort to understand God, rather than God’s attempt to supernaturally reach out to humanity.

      Clever comment though 🙂

      • J

        Yes, yes, “You can’t fire me, I quit”. Please don’t make this harder than it has to be, Mr. Piatt.

        • Christian Piatt

          It’s not you; it’s me.