The present time we live, the “now” of our existence, surely must be a very thin place indeed, one made more so by an unimagined pandemic we still don’t fully understand. So what happens when life seems to turn against you, when things go wrong and all our markers of success suddenly dissipate? What happens if you follow all the rules, work hard, get the best education you can, stay out of trouble, save a little, yet face a future made more uncertain each day? What if you now live in a world that, by present standards, can’t be fixed? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Forever stamp we could have used in a great yesterday now seemingly not returnable?
What if you’re a mountaineer who lives in Western North Carolina, where your hardscrabble life hasn’t been easy in the best of times? Or a young person working in Asheville in a restaurant or retail store that may never reopen? Or just graduating and looking for a job in the worst market in perhaps 70 years? You could be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness in your lives, but, if you’re a mountaineer who matches the majestic mountains surrounding us all, you’ll somehow find a way to just get by.
Let me start by not offering myself as a model for success in this brave new COVID world. Instead, let me recommend my parents or perhaps your grandparents as a better one. Yes, I did grow up in Texas in what USA Today described as two of the most miserable places in America to live, Willis and Pasadena. My family of five or six shared a single bathroom in an 800-square-foot home, all my brothers piled into one bedroom with me, no air conditioning until well after I left. My mother only went to the sixth and Dad to the seventh grade, and, through inconstant, temporary work like slapdash painting, bad carpentry, working on road crews where asphalt melted in the Texas heat, waitressing and taking in laundry, we cobbled together a life that forever resembled a Greek tragedy that never happened. Even with so many markers of deprivation and a claim to relative poverty, our circumstances were no worse and even a bit better than everyone else around us. We were the precarity class, our existence forever precarious and threatened, neither middle nor lowered much by life’s ups and downs. We somehow just got by.
Today we live in a society that celebrates success by wealth, materialism, degrees, titles, recognition and by all the “stuff” we have, whether sports cars, expensive homes, market portfolios or country club memberships. Yet let me suggest that we honor as proud examples those who are just doing OK, just getting by somehow in an increasingly complicated, messy, unstable economic and human environment. Like my parents, their lives probably involve intensive, even exhausting labor, uncertain outcomes, constant misfortune, shifting circumstances and adaptive, individual abilities that shape that effort. They’re somehow just getting by. Theirs is a remarkable achievement that endures from generation to generation. As my mother once said, “What matters in life is that you did the best you could with the tools you had,” even though qualitatively, the “tools” you’re given aren’t as good as those of a lot of other folks. These days, just getting by should be celebrated as a success, one that makes us all proud.
— Milton Ready