Why Great Expectations Matter

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: Dec 15, 2016 12:01 AM
Why Great Expectations Matter

My hometown of Carrollton, Georgia, a town of 14,000, was an hour west of Atlanta. We left our door unlocked while away, life revolved around church and high school football, and I wore my sister's hand me downs until I grew taller than her. We very rarely ate out, and my bedroom furniture included a cast off 3-foot-diameter, circular wooden spool that had been used by Southwire Company, along with cinder blocks and plywood for shelves.

After my parents' divorce, my mother recorded every expense, down to the penny. There were times when we barely made it through the month, but we always did. Regardless of our circumstances, we believed that things could get better through education and hard work.

"Hillbilly Elegy," written by JD Vance, chronicles Vance's travels from Kentucky to Ohio through the Marines and on to Yale Law School. Self-described as a Scots-Irish hillbilly, he provides insight into the culture, customs and trials of working-class whites in Middle America. Much of what he describes reminds me of my childhood, as well as that of my friends and neighbors.

Vance was shaped by a traumatic childhood: an absent father, numerous father figures moving in and out of his life and a mother who was unable to provide him with stability. Vance's Mawmaw (grandmother) provided the stability and framework that enabled him to work towards a life that what would have seemed unimaginable to him as a teen.

"ACEs (Adverse childhood experiences) are traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood," wrote Vance. These include "Being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents, being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you, feeling that your family didn't support each other, having parents who were separated or divorced, living with an alcoholic or drug user, living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide, and watching a loved one being physically abused."

Constant stress experienced in childhood can lead to a perpetual fight-or-flight trigger physiologically and can change brain chemistry. Once set on a course to react to every slight as a fight, it's hard to change that reaction and Vance's time in the Marines taught him to believe in himself and in his ability to shape his destiny. "I came a little closer to believing in myself," he wrote. "Psychologists call it 'learned helplessness' when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life ...the Marines were teaching me learned willfulness."

This change in belief is counter to what is often preached politically, according to Vance.     "Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers... What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you are a loser; it's the government's fault."

"The profound, deep dissatisfaction of the American people," helped drive Trump to victory wrote Newt Gingrich in his recent ebook, "Electing Trump: Newt Gingrich on the 2016 Election." Trump's message - that we could do more, could be more as a nation - is one of optimism about the future. A message many were and still are eager to hear.

While Vance was able to create a framework for understanding the challenge, that is not clear answer. "People sometimes ask me whether I think there's anything we can do to 'solve' the problems of my community," he wrote. "But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren't like a Rubik's Cube, and I don't think that solutions ...really exist."

What does make a difference? "They had a family member that they could count on. And they saw -- from a family friend, and uncle, or a work mentor -- what was available and what was possible...The real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn't happen) at home," Vance noted. This also means that government programs can't provide solutions, but that possibly a more engaged citizenry, who provide examples of what could be, and help the next generation believe that they can make a difference through their actions, might be a great start.