Thursday Thought #141: Privilege: The Hard Thing About Hard Things


The world is an inherently difficult place. It can be hard and hostile. The human capacity for withstanding that difficulty is incredible.

The human ability to endure and overcome the darkness of circumstances is one of our greatest gifts. It’s also one of our greatest dangers.

We are constantly comparing with one another how much pain, suffering or un-ideal circumstances we can endure so that we may reflect that capacity into the public sphere. But the difficulty with this tendency is that we often make certain circumstances in life harder for ourselves or those around us than they need to be.

We create the conditions to make accomplishing a task, reaching a goal, or conquering a fear take ten times as long and be ten times as difficult than it would need to be if we didn’t have this lingering fear in our psyche. Conversely, if we do accomplish something in an efficient — or dare I say, even easy — manner, we constantly feel the need to validate how this task was an aberration or how something else will be more difficult in the future.

Or when we share the narrative, it suddenly gets pushed to the extreme.

“Sleeping on a friend’s couch for a year” becomes “I was homeless.”
“Having parents who fought” becomes “I was abused.”
And so on for this race of emotional hyperbole.

This may be a function of privilege.

–I Am Privileged–

As an first generation African-American male, there are many ways in which the world works against me. And yet for me as an individual, there are many way in which it doesn’t. I’m surrounded by a healthy, mindful community. I am highly educated in an advanced nation. I speak several languages. My cultural story brings a unique perspective to my work.

So I constantly find myself in a debate. I reflect on my past, and how much was earned through sheer force of will from me and my family. And because of that, if I can’t tell myself that something today was earned through the toil of late nights, bloodshot eyes, and consumed hours, then I often have trouble saying it was “earned” at all. Or on the days where I find work both challenging and immensely gratifying, I am struck with the pangs of guilt for those who may not also get to to feel that way.

And yet, I’m also filled with a sad empathy for those who have overcome difficult circumstances — and feel that they have to hide in the shadows, lest they excoriated for selling out, abandoning their roots, or being privileged.

I feel this is a human challenge. Whether you are born in a first-world nation or were just born two inches taller than your friend — we’re always navigating these tricky waters. These natural imbalances in ability, drive, environment, support — all the while fearing the shame that might come from people decrying: “she was born into that opportunity” or “I could have that too if I didn’t have x thing holding me back.”

But what would it be like to celebrate things coming without toil — whether that’s through years of hard work or taking a path untrodden?

How can we honor ourselves or those around us for whom paths have brought gifts and rewards that allow them to give back to the world and other ways?
How might we actually give ourselves the grace to move through life in an effective way, challenging ourselves when necessary, but also alleviating challenge when possible?
How can we get out of this spiral to the bottom where we’re constantly needing to compare whose path was harder or more treacherous or fraught with more tears?

Is harder necessarily better or more virtuous? There is virtue in hard. A lot of it. But if you’ve experience hard, then there can be just as much virtue in easy. And our capacity for empathy lies in being able to accept both realities.

If easy creates imbalance, intolerance or inequity, then we should address it. If it creates envy, then we should try to openly listen and understand. But we shouldn’t villainize ourselves or others for not making this already difficult world even more burdensome.

Perhaps it’s an opportunity to make the world a bit softer.