June 29, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)


Our ancestors are very good kind of folks; but they are the last people I should choose to have a visiting acquaintance with.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

There was an era, not too long ago, when lots of people started looking for their "roots". What happened to these people after they found them? Were they more content or less content with their lot? Did they go back and rejoin the culture that they came from? Or, as I suspect, did they remain as alienated as ever, although they were much better informed?

All of us grow up as part of a culture which we accept as our entire familiar world. When we go to school, we sometimes find out that there are many other worlds out there which look at things differently. If we are a part of the dominant culture, it is possible to say that "we are normal and they are peculiar." It is possible to say that "we are normal and they are peculiar," even if we are not members of the dominant culture, provided that our cultural indoctrination was strong enough and convincing enough.

If you are born as a member of a family that others look up to, it is easy to hold fast to the cultural identity that you are born with, even if it doesn't happen to be the dominant culture. The child of the town doctor or lawyer can feel good about his identity even if he happens to be a Jew, Mexican, Armenian, Finn, Chinese and so on. The child of the town drunk may feel alienated even if the town drunk is a member of the dominant culture.

I don't know what percentage of children are unhappy with the culture that they were born into. I do know that there are enough of us so that we constitute a substantial minority, or perhaps even the majority. There aren't many who, at some time or another in their lives, have not found the cultural grass greener in some other pasture. True, no one wants to trade placed with one of the bush tribes in Africa, but there are many who would swap cultures with another one in this country. It is no accident that there are so many cross-cultural marriages where each seeks to join the culture of the other, while at the same time denying it vehemently. It is common to hear that "we got married in spite of our differences." When Abe married his Irish rose, he wanted some of her culture and she some of his. If Abe hadn't found Rose, he would have found Kathleen; while if Rose hadn't found Abe, she would have found Sol. Many of those accidents, including accidental pregnancies, are planned; although not consciously so.

Even the Kennedys have reason to envy other people and cultures. While being a member of a class that comes close to being American royalty is not bad compared to the lot of the town pauper, it, too, has its disadvantages. The assassination of both John and Bobby Kennedy made that painfully clear. The vicissitudes of fate smite the rich as well as the poor, the high as well as the low born.

Given a comfortable home, enough to eat and a bit left over for a few luxuries, there really isn't that much difference in the share of happiness allotted to the rich and middle class. Poverty can be pretty miserable, but even there, some people can be happy as long as they don't look over the fence at the rest of the world.

I am reminded of a story about a group of kids who were asked to write an essay on poverty. The rich kid wrote, "It was a very poor family. Everyone was poor. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the maid was poor, the butler was poor and the chauffeur was poor."

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