What could Shania Twain and the U.S. welfare debate have in common? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but I believe there’s something very profound to be discovered in the comparison. If music is indeed a reflection of our culture, then I believe Shania’s greatest hit reveals a profoundly dysfunctional fixation with one aspect of the “American Dream” — the belief in beating the odds.
Shania Twain’s hit song “Still the One” reached number two on the Billboard Top 100, received 4 Grammy nominations, and won 2: Best Country Song and Best Female Country Vocal Performance. By most people’s estimates, it’s her most popular song, and certainly her most successful crossover from country to pop.
The song’s popularity is due in no small part to the lyrics. They are an expression of something many of us have experienced at some point. The young idealistic romance that everyone disapproves of miraculously turns into mature and enduring love:
Ain’t nothin’ better
We beat the odds together
I’m glad we didn’t listen
Look at what we would be missin’
They said, I bet they’ll never make it
But just look at us holding on
We’re still together still going strong
You’re still the one I run to
The one that I belong to
You’re the one I want for life
You’re still the one that I love
The only one I dream of
You’re still the one I kiss good night
We Westerners really love this story. We love romance movies where the good girl gets the bad boy and they ride off into the sunset to start their functional life together as husband and wife in a very traditional sense. And really, when it comes down to it, there’s something downright narcissistic about it. Just by its very definition, this kind of arrangement is more likely to fail than succeed. That’s a very important point that we often miss: The reason these stories are compelling is because the young couple is unlikely to make it!
Most ill-conceived relationships fail, often spectacularly. When two people who are not well suited for long-term commitment get together in a spontaneous rush of hormones and rebellion, the end result is often disaster. But ironically, this is the very thing that motivates so many people to try! We Americans equate success with virtue. That is, we believe if a person beats the odds, it is because he is more devoted, more hard-working, more determined than his peers. “Against All Odds” is a challenge. It is a way of saying, “Are you better than all those other people who didn’t have what it takes to make it?”
Ironically, this viewpoint is often strengthened by pointing out how many thousands of people fail compared to those who make it long term. When we imagine how great it will feel to know that we are better than so many people, it becomes tantalizingly simple to take the plunge. After all, if it doesn’t work, we’ve got plenty of company. If it does work, then look how awesome we are! All the while, there’s an overarching cultural viewpoint — no matter how ill conceived the match, if the couple works hard enough, they can make it. Sadly, this is simply not true. Most mis-matched relationships fail in spite of all the hard work the couple put in. That’s the reality of long odds.
While there is some truth to the adage that hard work beats luck on most any day, Americans have taken it to absurd extremes. Shania’s sweet little song about enduring love can be seen as a reflection of our sometimes assinine insistence on traveling the most treacherous of all possible roads. It’s good to try to make it last with the most unlikely partner. It’s good to indulge in romances with partners that everyone says are terrible matches. Because if we make it, that means we’re better than everyone else. And after all, every romance movie ever made ends with the unlikely couple succeeding despite overwhelming odds…
And this is where welfare comes into the picture. The line from the Conservative Right has been the same for decades: Welfare discourages people from making it on their own. If poor people just work hard, stay devoted, and log plenty of overtime for enough years, eventually they will find themselves on a patio smoking Cubans while their homegrown business venture rakes in millions.
The truth, of course, is that not one in ten thousand people in desperate poverty ever makes it far out of the hole, if they make it at all. Poverty is a cycle, and it is almost impossible to escape without help. For every anecdote about the guy who started washing dishes and ended up owning twenty restaurants of his own, there are still thousands of people in their forties washing dishes. And it’s not because they don’t work hard. The poorest paying jobs often require the most difficult tasks and the longest hours. It’s because there is little hope for unrestrained upward mobility after the realities of adulthood have set in.
Speaking of realities of adulthood, let’s go back to Shania’s song for a moment. What is the most common adulthood reality that results from an ill-advised romance? That’s right… babies. And what is the number one hindrance to young people’s upward mobility? That’s right… babies.
Babies are, above all other things, tremendously expensive and tremendously time consuming. Even modern-day Stepford Wives spend several years with permanent bags under their eyes when they become mothers. For the poor, there are simply no options besides full time parenting, which pretty much negates any possibility for the one thing that could help them get out of poverty — full time education. Which, of course, is impossible on a minimum wage budget…
Why do so many people have babies while they’re poor and in relationships that seemed doomed to failure? Of course there are lots of reasons, including the Christian Right’s characterization of birth control as evil, abortion as murder, and women as baby-machines. But in addition to that, there’s the unreasonable — and culturally approved — idea that it’s a sign of strength to take on impossible challenges. You know… like the challenge of making a relationship last even though the odds are awful…
What’s behind this fixation on beating the odds? Like most cultural phenomena, the answer is certain to be multi-faceted, but one cannot deny the apparent connection to the Christian belief that if one is only faithful enough to Jesus, he will be rewarded with material success. The “Prosperity Gospel” preached by Joel Osteen and others promises that very thing. Rather than encouraging followers to be frugal and to make wise investments in the future, these hucksters encourage them to step out on faith and make a down payment on a house that’s out of their range, or the new car they want but don’t need. “Trust God,” they say, and God will provide, even if the odds seem stacked against you.
Of course, this strategy has worked very well for the Osteens and other preachers, whose exhortations have led hundreds of thousands of Christians to give money as a “love offering” to Jesus. But for the average poor American, the harsh reality is that bucking the odds will probably result in failure. And unfortunately, in today’s America, there are precious few safety nets for those who do fail. Most will end up in dire straights, with little or no hope of ever rejoining the Middle Class.
Even when there is no explicit prosperity gospel being preached, there is still a sense of miraculous elitism inherent in American Christianity. Former drug addicts are paraded around the podium, shedding tears while telling of how Jesus saved them from the lowest of circumstances, when there was no hope that they could have accomplished it themselves. Preachers promise that Jesus can save us from any trouble, no matter how bad, if only we surrender our lives to him.
These two beliefs create a double-insulation for Christians. On the one hand, Jesus will reward us for hard work and persistence, but Jesus will reward us for abject failure as well. No matter what we do, if we are a “Child of the King,” everything will work out well in the end. Our high risk behavior is justified, since Jesus wants to reward us for trusting him. Our disdain for those who have failed is also justified, since obviously they aren’t pious enough for Jesus to have saved them from poverty yet, or perhaps they just don’t work hard enough.
Thus, we see the dysfunctional paradox exposed. In America, we believe it is a sign of strength to defy odds. We admire people whose relationships make it despite years of often brutal fighting. We admire people who rise from poverty to become millionaire celebrities. This admiration is encouraged by our singers, our politicians, and our preachers. Sadly, we are also strongly opposed as a nation to the safety net that is demanded by our high-risk strategy. We insist on idolizing the rags to riches success stories, but we refuse to acknowledge or provide for the hundreds of thousands of people who don’t make it. We blithely ignore the fact that for one person to beat overwhelming odds, there have to be overwhelming numbers of people who do not beat the odds. We ascribe their failure to personal deficiency, not the inescapable math that we were so enamored of in the first place.
We cannot have it both ways. Either we must acknowledge the inherent contradiction in expecting everyone to beat the odds, or we must admit that we are happy to let tens or even hundreds of thousands suffer without a safety net, so long as we get to enjoy next season’s Rags-to-Riches reality show on A&E. Personally, we should examine our lives and our life choices very carefully to determine just how much of our future is determined by our belief that we are better than everyone else, and how much is the carefully considered balance of risk and the chance of success.