The Book Club

Making It

Hello, Richard:

I wanted to go back to something you said yesterday, as it has been rattling around my brain all night. You noted an “immense divide between wired-up, screwed-up America … and a quieter America where men may suffer far less from identity crises because they are trying to get by rather than get ahead.” I have already discussed the fact that “wired up” America is far more extensive than its presumably “screwed up” epicenters. But now I want to address the notion that one must be in Los Angeles, New York, or the equivalent, to be “getting ahead.” That formulation strikes me as emblematic of the very ornamental culture that Faludi derides. For many of the people battling it out in these places, “winning” or “getting ahead” means being noticed by the others–on camera, in the news, in a magazine, and so on. The mentality of “others notice me, therefore I am” is quite appropriate if you are 14 years old, but pretty pathetic for a grown-up. This “ornamental culture” is like a perpetual twilight of adolescence; it is a thwarted adulthood. For those who exist only in the gaze of others, “getting ahead” may well mean achieving more time at the center of attention, but that really gets them nowhere new, and least of all “ahead.” Maybe that explains Susan Faludi’s enigmatic visage on the cover of Newsweek–participating in the ornamentation thing, but knowing better.

The real challenge of “getting ahead” as an adult is far more complex. It involves the work of forging an identity that has coherence and integrity, whether or not anyone is looking. But adult development, as Gilligan, Kegan, and many others have noted, does not stop there with the achievement of an autonomous identity. It can also mean learning that my humanity is larger than the roles I inhabit, and in the exploration of my individuality I also, paradoxically, discover the possibility of a deeper connection with many kinds of people. Autonomy is not an end in itself but a foundation for the ongoing work of individuation and real intimacy. These triumphs of adulthood are hard won, and as you said about children, they often spring from darkness and grief. They always spring from engaging with the messiness of real life.

All over America, and indeed all over the world, people are “getting ahead,” in this truer sense; they are not merely “getting by.” They are geologists and hospice workers and emergency-room doctors and research scientists and lobstermen and forest rangers and cooks and microbiologists and farmers and mechanics and entrepreneurs and programmers and small-business people and mothers and veterinarians and teachers. They are in the hills of the altiplano, caring for their land and their animals and their families. They are in the Brazilian rain forest, fighting ranchers and government ineptitude. They are in East Timor, standing for independence. They are in all the quiet places where the cameras do not roam, making love, making family, making dinner, and making a world. They are not hanging around making bombs and complaining about lost dominance. Nor is Donald Trump their role model. They are too busy for that. Too busy getting ahead.

I am persuaded that the new economy already shows signs of offering much more opportunity for adults to move beyond the conformist pressures of the large 20th-century organizations and the fragmented identities of industrial society. I think this emerging era will provide more adults with the possibility of becoming individuals, as it enables us to reintegrate work and life in many new rich and varied patterns. (And by the way, only about 20 percent of those home offices I mentioned yesterday are dedicated to telework.)

Once again, hats off to Susan Faludi for the authenticity of her effort and the seriousness of her subject. Whether or not I agree with her analysis, I do think that these times require a reexamination of many century-old formulations, including masculinity and particularly the role that gender has played in the maintenance of traditional economic models. May the debate continue so that we can all, well, get ahead …

As ever,

Shoshana Zuboff