During my time as a reporter here in Central Washington, I’ve covered a lot of motivational speeches by people who want to encourage others to work hard, persevere, and succeed. Whatever success might mean.
(And for a lot of people, that definition is small — which is to say, very human — getting married, raising a family, having a good job that makes those things possible.)
The idea, and it’s a well-meaning one, is to inculcate in those facing greater obstacles the will to go on. Grit. Determination. A sense that hard work can and will pay off. That dreams are achievable.
The latest one of these came last week from the mayor of a West Side city who visited Ephrata, where he’d grown up. Jimmy Matta, who was elected the first Latino mayor of the city of Burien in King County last fall, returned to Ephrata High School to meet and talk to students. And he recalled that, as the son of migrant farmworkers, he was the only Latino kid in the third grade, and he was bullied a lot, and shuffled into special education.
Now, Matta has done well for himself. Even though he dropped out of high school, he eventually became a union carpenter, an organizer and a small businessman. And he attributed growing up with such adversity as “character building” (though I suppose it also contributed to his falling in with a rough crowd in high school, people who accepted him as he was, and his eventual dropping out).
“They didn’t break me,” he said. “Don’t let them break you.”
Which is fine advice.
But … adversity and hardship and suffering and a lack of anything resembling success are unendurable for some people (quite a lot actually), who are ground down and broken. Shattered.
I’m not talking about myself here. But I have, in my time as a reporter, met my fair share of people who have been broken, who feel like they have been left dead by the side of the road (and many have), for whom life has been all too much. Angry people, unsure exactly who they should be angry at. Bitter people. Tired and resigned people.
What obligations do we have to them? What mercy and kindness do we owe them? As individuals and as a community?
Because it’s all well enough to tell our children, to encourage our young people, to keep going and not give up. But life doesn’t necessarily hand out rewards for hard work, doesn’t necessarily recognize grit and determination. And many of them know that. Their eyes tell them another truth that our words only suggest when we say “don’t let them break you.”
Because they can break us.