‘As human beings, we are all “stuck in the mud-hole.” We are all slogging through the “muck,” we are all equally dirty, and we all “stink,” but we give meaning to our lives by pursuing our goals and overcoming challenges.’
The above lines come from Choice, a brilliant essay penned by Dr Steven Phillipson, a New York-based psychologist and CBT therapist. Now, some people might think: yeah, right. They might look at the seemingly golden lives of others and think, “They’ve had it easy in life”.
In a recent interview, Phillipson talked about this mindset, arguing the idea of ‘privilege’ is a ‘sad concept’. The concept of privilege is an increasingly popular one among the millennial generation, particularly in the US and the UK, with discussions usually focusing on race, sexuality, gender, or class. Dr Phillipson, as a ‘white, older male of some financial security’, describes it as the notion that everything in life has been given to him, that he ‘didn’t have to try in any way’; thus, he cannot possibly understand what life is like for less fortunate people.
This mindset is counterproductive; to be ‘adamantly angry and resentful for facing life’s challenges’, says Phillipson, will likely perpetuate depression and a sense of alienation. A healthier attitude, he says, is to realise that ‘no one escapes the mud-hole’ and to accept that we ‘are all in the mud-hole together’.
Again, some people might think; yeah, right. Dr Phillipson trained at John's Hopkins University Hospital, one of the world’s greatest hospitals. Happily married, he is a well-paid and celebrated psychologist with a thriving practice in Manhattan. How can he credibly say we ‘are all in the mud-hole together’?
It’s not a good idea to presume others have an ‘easier life path’, says Phillipson. His father died when he was two years old. He came from a very poor family. As a young boy, he was the only white person in his class and was regularly beaten up in the playground. He had undiagnosed dyslexia and had to stay behind a year at school. This was a source of great shame to the young Phillipson; when classmates asked him why he was so much older than them, he lied, pretending he had to move from one school to another – that was preferable to saying, ‘because I failed every subject in every class.’ That was not the only lie he told. He was so embarrassed that he didn’t have a father, he lied about having a father until high school; when his friends would ask why his father was not around, he would pretend he was away on an air force mission.
Now, it’s only right to say that some people are more privileged and fortunate than others. Life can be unfair and some people have many more opportunities in life than others. One’s socio-economic background shapes one’s life in all kinds of ways. Discrimination – whether pertaining to race, gender, sexuality, religion, class, and so on – is real and pervasive. An unstable family background, childhood poverty, trauma – their long-term psychological effects should not be underestimated.
However, it’s important to remember that everyone has their own battles. They may be different to yours, but that’s not to say that they are less significant. The superficial notion that some people “have it all” – big house, great job, perfect partner, perfect life – is a nonsense. Everyone has their own problems. Dreams will be dashed, friendships and relationships will come to disappointing ends, loved ones will get sick and die – the simple reality is everyone experiences tough times in life.
Focusing on how others have it “easy” may make you feel righteous, but it ultimately breeds bitterness, resentment, and fatalism. Similarly, to idealise the lives of others is, as Dr Phillipson writes in his aforementioned Choice essay, ‘to misrepresent the realities of human experience’.
If you think otherwise, if you insist others have it easy – well, you’re much more likely to get bogged down in the mud rather than to emerge from it.
(First published in Southern Star, 30/04/2020)