I recently heard the writer and sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild describe the discontent many feel in the country today. It was from her acclaimed book, Strangers in Their Own Land, and was captured in the following metaphor:
“You’re waiting in line for the American dream that you feel you very much deserve. It’s like waiting in a pilgrimage, and the line isn’t moving. Your feet are tired. You feel you are properly deserving of this reward that’s ahead. And the idea is, you don’t begrudge anyone in this right deep story. You’re not a hateful person. But then you see... somebody cutting ahead of you. Why are they getting special treatment?
Then, in another moment, the president of the country, Barack Obama, who should be tending fairly to all waiters-in-line, seems to be waving to the line cutters. In fact, “Is he a line cutter?” — the idea is. How did his mother — she was a single mother, not a rich woman — afford a Harvard education, a Columbia education? Something fishy happened. That was the thought there.”
In a final moment, someone from the coasts, someone highly educated, someone from that so-called elite, turns around, and they’re really close to the prize, or they have the prize. But they turn around and look at the others who are waiting in line and say, “Oh, you backward, Southern, ill-educated, racist, sexist, homophobic redneck.” That is the estranging thing, that insult.”
The power of metaphors is their ability to reveal deeper insights into our thinking about a particular topic.
And in hearing hers, it illuminates the following truths about how we see mobility in this country:
We generally don’t understand how we end up in our place in line.
We have even less knowledge about how other people get their place in line
We don’t know why the line moves for some and not for others.
And finally, we spend too much time judging others in the line and too little figuring out how to make the line move faster for all of us.