Against the current

Today’s blog: snorkeling, ocean currents, Ben Carson, and high school sports, part 2.

Ben Carson has a contract with FOX News, and that reminded me of a conversation my daughter’s 9th grade volleyball team had with their coach, after another hard loss.  “We want to learn to serve like them!” all the girls said.  The coach had to break it to her team, only 2 of whom had ever played volleyball at all:  We don’t have the booster money that school has.  They have a summer sports’ camp to teach volleyball.  Almost all of the girls on that other team played competitive volleyball before they got to high school.  

Ben Carson is often held up as an example of how poverty and being raised by a single mom working several jobs in the inner city shouldn’t keep anyone back.  I can see the point, if I look very narrowly.  It’s the same point Supreme Court Justice Clarence made years ago when talking about affirmative action:  It’s not necessary.  Look at where I am.  If I can do it, so can everyone else.  

It’s a myth that anyone arrives with an equal chance in this world, but the forces that conspire either for us or against us are largely invisible, and therefore, easily denied.  In “The Hidden Brain,” the author, an average swimmer, headed to a coral reef, and he was so pleased with just how strong his stroke felt, and how much he had improved.  Rationally, he knew he had done no training, no stroke work, no practice that would allow him such competency; his brain, however, attributed it all to him.  Then, he had to turn around, and come back.  Now, his brain blamed him for his weakness and poor swimming skills.  

He wondered what was going on?  Sure, he was a little tired heading home, but not so wiped out that each stroke made such little progress.  He was covering the same distance.  Then he realized:  On the way out, when he thought he was such an amazing swimmer?  He was going with the current; and the current was pushing him along, enhancing his average ability.  On the way back, he was going against the current, fighting for each stroke, diminishing his average ability.  His brain had assumed it was all him – for better, and for worse.

Attribution error:  When our brains assume more control or responsibility for our current state than is real.  That other 9th grade volleyball team?  Sure, they are good – but they aren’t INHERENTLY better than my daughter’s 9th grade team.  Perhaps they’ve had external advantages that led them to believe it IS all them.  Which makes having compassion for folk who have less, do less, and are less successful, a real challenge.  Because when we’re blind about everything that conspired to get us where we are, we’re blind to just how hard some folk have to swim against the current.  Perhaps we aren’t as good – or as bad – as our brains might tell us, and neither are those other people.  There is always more than meets the eye, even when our brain is reluctant to see it.  Next time you think you know why someone is doing “less than,” ask yourself:  What got you here?  What kept them there?  And invite your brain to dig deeper.


2 thoughts on “Against the current

  1. Outstanding post Amy! Self-made is an illusion as you point out. It takes the current of community, friends, family, motivation and so much more…..I’m learning a lot from you!

  2. Agree, and more needs to be said about this myth. People hold up one or two examples of those who “made it” and think it can apply easily to everyone. We are blaming the individual for being poor without looking at the system that surrounds the individual and how it contributes. Its too easy for the rich to rationalize away the poor as purely to blame for their own plight. Great thoughts.

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