Potential, Possibility, and “the Annihilation of the Future”

If you’re able to buy food, clothing, shelter, and other basic life necessities, and can take care of yourself and your family, you know that motivation by itself is not enough for economic security.  Not everyone thinks this way; some people think the biggest (or even only) reason anyone in this country of wealth and opportunity is poor is because they choose to be poor; hard work, determination, and a little bit of luck are all one needs to overcome poverty.

But this misunderstands the causal connection between motivation and poverty.  Lack of motivation does not cause poverty – poverty causes lack of motivation.

“[W]hen you are approaching poverty … [you discover] the fact that it [poverty] annihilates the future” [emphasis added].  The quote is from the end of the third chapter of Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell’s first book.  Published in January 1933, Down and Out draws upon Orwell’s own experiences of poverty and unemployment some seven to eight years before its publication.

I was struck by this quotation’s direct implications for the ideas of potential and possibility in our lives.  Without an implicit belief about the potential we can bring into being, that the dreams we dream are part of what we need to do to make those dreams real, both potency and possibility “die on the vine.”  When you’re poor, the immediacy of your poverty crowds all of your mental space; there are no thoughts (and there cannot be any thoughts) of what might be – since survival is all that matters.

Hence Orwell’s “annihilation of the future.”  Think of the vast volumes of human ingenuity, imagination and creativity that go unrealized because so many of us have to scramble just to make ends meet.  The “side hustle,” in addition to one’s regular job, is touted as just part of the new normal in America – a tacit admission that no one gets by on a single paycheck anymore.

Do NOT accept this “new normal.”  Despite what we want to believe, whatever good fortune we enjoy has only a little to do with us; our economic security is rarely in direct proportion to our efforts, or what we think we deserve.  At a minimum all of us deserve life’s basic necessities (e.g., food, health, and shelter).  Without these, there is no future – for any of us.

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