When do ideas become stories? When do stories become myths? When do myths become harmful?
Post-colonization North American culture is young compared to the rest of the world. Our stories are new but our identities have already been hammered into stone—America the independent rebel, Canada the polite do-gooder, Mexico the feisty outsider. But there is one myth that binds us. It is, for the most part, an American myth, though aspects of this myth bleed regularly north and south.
The myth is that of the plucky-yet-poor individual who, by sheer hard work and determination, pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and succeeds. Only in a free and democratic nation could this happen! Only in the land(s) of opportunity can peasants become wealthy.
I have my own bootstrap story. Had my father been an American, his story would have been a prime example of that oft-touted and mythologized American Dream.
Except when it became a nightmare. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My father, Robert, as I have mentioned here before, grew up poor in a family of seven. A depression era baby, he was raised and nurtured on frugality. Cleaning up after his death, I found a drawer full of bread bag clips—because you never throw away something useful.
I don’t know how my dad landed his job with Western Canada Steel but it would prove to be his golden ticket. With not even a highschool diploma to his name, Dad’s career options were limited. Steel work was difficult and dangerous. Loud, hot, stifling, the steel mill was not for the faint of heart, but my dad had a dream. And so, without eye or ear protection, without steel-toed boots or safety helmets, he slogged away, pulling up those bootstraps, dreaming of better days.
And the better days came.
In 1974, he and his wife moved to the suburbs with their two daughters, into a brand new house, and an idyllic world of summer barbeques and winter snowball fights, dance recitals and Christmas feasts, three-week summer driving holidays and weekend camping adventures. Paradise.
My parents both worked full time jobs. My grandma lived with us and functioned as housekeeper, cook, and babysitter. We always had two cars and usually traded one or both in for a new car every four or five years. My sister and I never had to wear hand-me-downs and you could always count on a pile of presents under the Christmas tree.
And while he enjoyed the fruits of his labour, my dad never “settled”. He often worked graveyard shifts, arriving home close to 9am, falling into bed for a few hours of heavy-snoring sleep, and then waking to chop firewood, fix something around the house, bake a pie, drive me to dance lessons, or any of the other hundreds of odd jobs he always had on the go. He was an avid gardener—I grew up with every vegetable known to humankind in my backyard—and builder. You could say a lot of things about my dad, but you could never, ever, call him lazy.
Just as the myth promises, my dad rose from his humble beginnings by the sweat of his brow and reaped the bounty of toil and sacrifice. And then, because life loves a good joke, he lost it all.
When I was seventeen, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t so bad that she would need chemo, the doctors told her, but bad enough that she would have to go through radiation and possibly take some time off work. When I was eighteen, the steel mill my dad worked for locked its doors. There were cheaper places to mill steel and so…poof…gone.
My parents had to sell our family home and, of course, the university tuition they had promised to help me with became my responsibility alone. My dad, now in his mid-fifties with no work experience other than steel work, took a job with a window manufacturer for less than half the wages he had been making. He considered himself lucky to get a job at all given his age and lack of education. They bought a condo in Surrey, BC. By this time, my mom had been through one round of chemo and could no longer work at all. When her cancer came back, digging into her spin like a rabid vole, my dad had to leave his new job to care for her full time. A year later he took an early pension and they were both officially retired.
My mom died in 1996. My dad was an empty soul. Of all the losses he suffered, that was the one from which he could not recover. He stayed in the condo for a long as he could afford it but with one small pension and a rapidly rising cost of living that was not long.
Life got in one last laugh. The condo turned out to be one of BC’s infamous “Leaky Condos” and so he had to sell it at a loss. The final years of his life were spent in a moldy, tumble-down mobile home in Coombs, BC, where the lingering aftereffects of a life of hard labour—arthritis, respiratory illness, tinnitus, and more—rendered him barely able to walk from bedroom to living room.
I think he embraced death, when it came, as an end to loneliness and pain.
In some ways, my dad was lucky. He was born of an age that provided opportunity. My parents, with little education, could afford a new home, two cars, family vacations, and a decent standard of living without sinking into a bottomless pit of debt. The percentage of North Americans who can claim that lifestyle shrinks every year. Near the end of his life, my dad and I often talked about how well he could live off his meager pension back in 1996. Less than twenty years later, living much more simply than he ever had, he would frequently put off buying much-needed medication because he could not afford it. When I could, I offered to help, but Dad was a proud man who would not take “charity”, even from his daughter.
Now that you have read his story, tell me, at what point could he have pulled himself up by his bootstraps? Should he have left his wife at home alone when she was so weak from chemotherapy that she couldn’t get out of bed? Should he have lived out of his car to save on rent? How? Where? What could he have done to change his fortune? And, please, tell me he was lazy or a drain on society, I dare you.
Here’s the truth behind the bootstrap lie: fate doesn’t care about you.
There are people in this world who will work their fingers to the bone until the day they die and never rise above poverty. There are people like my dad who will rise on hard work and then fall on the whims of fate and chance. And there are some who will be born into wealth and privilege that they will never earn and most certainly never deserve.
A good work ethic is a desirable quality and your chances of a better life do increase with your willingness to learn, work hard, and sacrifice, but assuming that everyone who is poor is so because they lack the gumption or the wherewithal to grab hold of those bootstraps and tug is wrong and dangerous.
Dangerous because it takes our attention away from the real, systemic causes of poverty. Dangerous because it encourages derision, and even anger, toward some of the most helpless in our society. Dangerous because the guilt of failure, even when the failure is beyond our control, can be crippling. Dangerous because it makes necessary social safety nets seem like a luxury.
I’m going to take a wild stab and guess that a significant chunk of you reading this are carrying your own secret shame and guilt thanks to the bootstrap myth. You put on a brave face with the outside world, you keep up the best possible façade of success and happiness, but secretly you face mounting debt and shrinking opportunities to improve your situation. But what can you do? Isn’t it your fault you’re not a millionaire? And so you lie awake in the middle of the night, quietly panicking.
This is the legacy of the bootstrap lie—a society of people desperately pretending that the dream is still alive and achievable if we just work a little harder.
I’m tired of pretending.