Sunday’s Wisdom #388: The Peril of Success

“Success breeds contempt for those very qualities which purchased it.”
– Onrack T’emlava, House of Chains
Malazan Book of the Fallen
, by Steven Erikson

I usually go into lots of context with my quotes. This one, I am not even going to try. This one, we can just take at face value and discuss.

We all know the stereotype of the privileged individual of the upper class. It can be a daughter who has a complete meltdown when a nail gets chipped or something dirty and gross gets on her shoe. It can be the son of the company owner who sails through life on daddy’s coattails, pushing his work off onto other people while he makes advances on the more attractive women who work for his father. It can be some successful actor or author who becomes indignant at the prospect of having to do the same work as any rookie or novice, instead of getting whatever role or deal they want due to their connections and fame. It can take a hundred different faces, but it’s always the same: those who live at greater heights in society will often balk at what is normal for those below.

There is something understandable about this. I mean, what do we define success as, if not an improvement in our status and station such that we no longer need to worry about our previous worries? A man who has felt starvation’s keen edge will call it a massive success the moment he knows that he and his children will not starve, but instead go to bed with full bellies every day. We have an inherent drive to improve our situation, to advance towards Heaven and never let ourselves be pulled back down to the Hell we have escaped from. The problem is that with every step up the ladder, it gets easier to forget the ground on which we stand.

That spoiled rich girl who hates dirty, disgusting things? The fortune she takes for granted didn’t simply appear, it began the same way every other fortune ever began: built up from nothing by people whose hands were rough, callused, and dirty. Her ancestors worked hard because they had to in order to survive, but she, having no such concerns herself, just knows dirt to be filthy and work to be hard, so why would she not avoid both? Those things are for people who don’t live as high up the ladder as she does. They are the ones who are supposed to clean up all the gross messes, right?

That is sadly how it often goes, in one form or another. A man might work hard to achieve success, and then have a lazy son who does not value hard work or the people who do it. A man might come from nothing, and then gain so many riches that he looks down on the unsuccessful poor, the people he used to be identical to. A man may come from a good home with parents who were faithful to each other, but completely miss how much of his father’s strength came from such fidelity, so he sleeps around willy-nilly, and then wonders why his life is a mess.

Most people in first-world countries would be disgusted and horrified by blood, human or animal, because we don’t have to worry about it very much. We go get our meat from the store, already processed for us, so we don’t appreciate everything that went into making it available for us. We are so successful as a society that we don’t even think about what all the ranchers in the world have to do in their line of work, and when we hear about all the slaughterhouses, we pull back in revulsion. It’s how we’ve survived as a species and prospered as a civilization, with ranchers who deal with literal bullshit and blood, and farmers who kill themselves a little bit every day working the fields, and men working very dangerous jobs in foundries and on fishing boats, and garbage collectors and sewage workers dealing with all of our refuse and leavings, and janitors cleaning up the mess that everyone else doesn’t even think about… it goes on and on, but we don’t always appreciate such people or their concerns, do we?

At what point did our society start stepping on these people instead of treating them like people? What, because they’re dirty, they stink, they’re stuck working long, hard jobs that sometimes don’t pay great, making everything easy for everyone else? When did blood, sweat, tears, and dirt become a bad thing, instead of proof that these people work hard and get the job done? Ah, but such things are for people lower down the ladder, right? What do those who are higher up need to worry about? What concern need the residents of the heavens have for the people below?

Well, every empire that forgets to keep its foundations strong ends up falling into ruin.

Rare and wonderful, and absolutely essential, is the rich man who remembers how he got there.

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