Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Pull yourself up by your bootstraps"

I'd be hard-pressed to find a phrase I hate more than this one. Its meaning is simple: you have the power to improve your situation if you just man up and do it. On the surface, this appears to be good advice. But:
  • It implies that the person to whom the phrase is directed is at fault for being downtrodden.
  • It implies that we are completely in charge of our destiny. As James tells us, though, "You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? It is a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (4:13). And Proverbs, in many places, warns us about the plans of men versus the plans of God.
  • It fails to understand the complexities of the causes of poverty and the power of growing up in a poverty culture. Just as those who use the phrase usually have grown up in WASP culture with its emphasis on work ethic and merit, those to whom they usually direct this phrase have grown up with a completely different set of values that needs to be overcome or changed before they can even begin to find their bootstraps.
  • It fails to understand grace or give credit to God for their own situation. God "owns the cattle on a thousand hills," meaning He owns our bank accounts, jobs, and all our possessions. And just as quickly (or slowly) as they are granted to us, He can take them away. So while in one sense, by working hard one gets certain benefits, in reality, it's God's grace that enables us to work, and God's grace that gives us possessions as a result of that hard work. No amount of bootstrap pulling will advance us in material goods and stature without the will of God to grant that we advance.
  • It fails to see that our world is sinful, and the world's systems and societies are sinful, and often the wrong or undeserving people are rewarded. Sometimes it doesn't matter how hard one yanks on the bootstraps, because somebody keeps pushing you down as soon as you start to get up.
  • It fails to see that advancement in this world is not necessarily a good goal to have.
We don't live in a meritocracy, as much as we like to think we do. People are rewarded or punished based on who they know, how much money they have, what neighborhood they live in or school they go to. Yes, we like to think of our country as the "land of opportunity," and maybe it is more than others. But that doesn't change the fact that some people have longer bootstraps and others have shorter ones. And it certainly doesn't change the fact that it's God who directs the paths of every life, and it's by His grace that we possess anything. So let's please kill this phrase, because to a Christian it really has no meaning.