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The Boy in the Bubble

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By William Deresiewicz


 

A friend of mine was telling me about the mother of some friends of his. She was dying—it was cancer or something, she was only in her 60s. They were close, and he wanted to see her before she passed. She was out in Oklahoma, pretty much alone. Her sons were taking turns going down there to stay with her, and my friend was going to try to spend a few days there, as well, so she wouldn’t have to be by herself. He just wasn’t sure how he was going to get there. His car wouldn’t make it, and he didn’t think he could scrape together the money for a plane ticket. Worst came to worst, he’d have to take a bus, which would mean about two days each way.

My friend is not a member of the middle class, as you might have guessed. He has a high school education, grew up the son of a factory worker in a family of nine children, works part-time as a house painter and DJ, lives hand to mouth, and gets by with a little help from his friends. He’s been in AA for a long time, has seen a lot of people pass away. “I hope you can get there before it’s too late,” I said. “Hey,” he said, not unkindly, “we could both die before her. You never know what’s going to happen.”

I am a member of the middle class, as you might have guessed, and the moment made me realize something about the way we see the world. No one in the middle class imagines they could die at any minute. The middle-class idea is quite the reverse: that the world can be controlled, risk eliminated, fate mastered. Grades, admissions, credentials—the steady, predictable climb up the ladder of professional success—that’s the idea. We’re going to live a long time, and the world is not going to take us by surprise.

Has there ever been another group of people, in all of human history, that’s possessed that kind of attitude? Of course, there are reasons it’s emerged when it has: our enormous modern life expectancy, our inconceivable prosperity, our overwhelming military power. But I wonder about its spiritual perils. My professor used to say that it was easy for Nietzsche or Sartre to do without God, because they had so much else to sustain them. (Or Dawkins, or Hitchens, or him, or me.) Which is not to say we need to let the little people have their God. It is only to remind us—to remind myself, which I need to do on a regular basis—that we live in a bubble, and that most people (in the world, in history, even in our own country) are on the outside. And also to wonder if it’s already bursting.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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