We believe in meritocracy now, don’t we? We believe very much that people who apply their skills and strengths with persistent energy should, and do, succeed in the world. We don’t believe that social class, gender or race should hold anyone back from fulfilling their own special destiny. Do we? Of course not.
As a corollary, we often allow ourselves to believe that the losers, the failures, have somehow brought it on themselves. They skipped the class about getting out of their personal rut, or planning for life success, or self-discipline, or whatever it was. Maybe they didn’t listen, or didn’t apply themselves, or “got in their own way”.
Well (and you saw this coming), there are some problems here. We really ought to think it through a bit more clearly. In logic, sure enough, if Effort implies Success, then non-Success implies non-Effort: you failed because you didn’t try hard enough. (That’s modus tollens in formal logic). But of course life is not logic. No single factor implies (inevitably leads to) success, in the manner of this false argument . You may read and apply all the self-help, positive thinking books, run all the right podcasts while exercising or commuting, and still miss your mark. Stuff happens.
The Shadow of Oedipus
Think of Oedipus, in the powerful mythology of ancient Greece. Young, strong, out to take on the world. The old injury, revealed in his nickname (“Swollen-Foot”), doesn’t hold him back one bit, not him. The right mindset can overcome that sort of thing. Meets a rather obstructive older man up in the hills, where three roads come together. Unfortunately the older man is killed in the altercation, but he really was being very negative. Oedipus goes on into the troubled city, defeats the curse (the Sphinx) in a battle of wits, restores order and prosperity, marries the very attractive queen, settles down to enjoy being a good king and a good father. Not bad for an orphan and a self-made man, hey?
Uh-oh. You know, I know, and Teiresias the seer knows why the crops have failed and the earth turned sullen. Oedipus’ success, so richly deserved, is an abomination. The unpleasant older man was his father, the attractive queen is his mother, their children are his half-siblings.
This story resonates and recurs with us, as it did with the ancient Greeks, not just because it’s a tale of terror (it is), but because we all know at some level that stuff happens. We could call it a vindictive god, or we could call it a curse, but something can take a successful man’s success and turn it into his destruction. What is going on? They didn’t teach us this in kindergarten, did they?
Carl Jung, the psychologist and pioneer explorer of the human mind, might have a clue for us here. To all of our success and strength and prosperity, at the deep psychological level where these stories operate, there is a shadow side. The more we try to suppress the shadow, the stronger it gets. The Greeks were as hooked on success as we are, maybe even more. This Oedipus story of theirs, so often re-told, is perhaps, if we listen, telling them and us that there is a shadow. Deny the shadow, and it will sabotage your moment of triumph.
So what of the shadow side to our very modern meritocracy? The thoughtful writer Alain de Botton thinks we need a bit more tragedy, not to make us miserable (that’s not tragedy), but to remind us that sometimes the losers don’t deserve to lose. Sometimes there’s a shadow, a curse, that brings us undone. We’re doing great, and then something in ourselves, or in our stars, cuts us down.
That reflection might in turn make us a bit more compassionate. If the link from Effort to Success isn’t as strong as logic, maybe it’s harder to despise those who didn’t quite make it. Maybe we would be wise to have a safety net after all. And then, having seen that, maybe we might see life a bit more steadily and a bit more whole, like Sophocles.
That’s what I think. You?