Models Monday: Something vs. Nothing

In a previous post I mentioned that I enjoyed reading AARP magazine. I like reading it because the editors imagine an audience that has achieved some measure of self-acceptance, which seems to be a no-no in American culture. In general, it seems that Americans are supposed to be dissatisfied with themselves and be discontent with their work, family, looks–you name it, we’re supposed to be unhappy with it. Dissatisfied people, of course, are easier targets for products and projects designed to make your miserable life better. AARP magazine seems to suggest that someone out there has decided that “if this is as good as it gets, then I should figure out how to live my life–such as it is–the best way I can.”

I’ve started reading AARP’s website and I like it. Chris Gardner, the man who was the inspiration for Will Smith’s character in the film The Pursuit of Happyness, has a series on the site called “Mentoring Minutes” and the first video in the series that I watched is entitled “Start With What You’ve Got.”

First of all, the fact that Gardner starts from the perspective that people begin with something marks a difference from the way that Americans have been prepared to imagine themselves. Here I’m thinking about a series of advertisements from the earliest days of the new century that featured professional basketball players who described themselves as “coming from nothing.” I have since heard this idea expressed when people want to draw attention to the challenges they have confronted on their journey towards material comfort. Gardner’s story about his mother, though, draws attention to what she was capable of despite the appearance of lack. As she says, “Boy, I’ve done so much, with so little for so long, that I can do anything with nothing.” The things she lacked did not stand in for who she was or what she had to offer.

Ultimately, Gardner’s message is that you have something and it is wise to acknowledge it. It’s a message that resonates with me in light of the description that Morrison offers in Beloved of Baby Suggs’s speech in the clearing:

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

I like that Gardner never preaches to people about what they lack. Instead, he tells them that they are rich in resources. I also like that he doesn’t tell you what to do with those riches. So he doesn’t tell you to start a business or to invest in some mutual fund. He does not tell you whether it’s better to rent or to buy. His point, as I see it, is that we recognize that we are rich in a way that we had not previously recognized. He leaves it up to us to decide how we want to spend, save, or invest this currency. Embracing the notion that we have the ability to define value and meaning for ourselves in spite of how the culture presents these options is a much more worthwhile pursuit than claiming nothing.

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