I’ve been thinking about Dave and his Jaguar. Dave grew up in a disordered home, and lived a disordered life. Drugs, life on the streets, a few crimes, and time in prison brought him at last to sobriety, at least as sober as he could keep it. In Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Hand,” home was said to be the place where when you went there they had to take you in. Dave came to his sister’s house, the only place where he knew he would be taken in. He did not come well. His kidneys were failing. He had to be clean long enough to get on a transplant list, and hope his turn would come up before it was too late. It was already too late, but he hung in there for a good four or five years.
I got to know him well. We talked a lot about life, his life, his hopes, and his desire to live with dignity as a normal person in a normal middle class way, accepted as one of them by other normal middle class people. He was never quite able to pull it off. Bits of the streetwise con artist bubbled to the surface as he worked to fit in. Nevertheless, he tried, and he had a clear idea of the middle class symbols he needed to create the right image. He needed a cool but dignified car. He needed a boat and trailer. He needed the clothes that looked normal in our community.
Clothes were easy. Goodwill is a popular place to shop for the best in gently used, up to date clothing, some of highest quality. The boat wasn’t too hard either. The old seventeen foot aluminum runabout may have needed a little paint. It leaked but could be patched. The old outboard could be made to run. The trailer it sat on was OK for short distances. Dave loved to fish. What could be better? The right car, that’s what.
One day he showed up in a twenty year old Jaguar sedan. Classic lines, paint still in good condition, and it ran, more or less. It was the perfect car. Maybe it was old, but classic designs like that never go out of style. The name Jaguar alone spelled class, dignity, and having made it status. With these symbols parked at his sister’s house, how could he not be accepted as a normal middle class person? He had a lot to say about that. With symbols like these in hand, maybe it wouldn’t matter that he had no career, no work experience in which to take pride, a less than admirable record, no savings, and little income. He had the clothes, boat and car that he knew were the marks of middle class success. The facade never convinced anyone. But he was happy to pretend they did during the few years left to him.
Thinking about Dave reminded me of Ralph (my all purpose pseudonym), a young man whom I knew many years ago. He came from a family of local prominence, but struggled to make it through college with gentlemen’s Cs. His dad was in P.R., so Ralph knew what the symbols of success looked like. The right clothes, the right car, and even a boat. In his case, it also included the right briefcase. Get the symbols, and don’t worry too much about the rest. With the right name and a few connections, Ralph got jobs that had sufficient cachet, which he managed to hold onto by virtue of the same connections. With a few credit cards, he got the clothes, boat, and car too. It was an old Thunderbird that leaked oil, only one window could be rolled down, but it was a Thunderbird. Most important, he got the briefcase. Sooner or later symbols have to give way to reality, and for him reality was too much to bear. He died too young.
I’ve counseled a few young man (no women) who were obsessed with getting the right symbols of success, and envious of others who had more of them. That authentic success comes from competency in one’s field of endeavor, and the integrity of one’s relationships, was not easy to sell. Others may not have been obsessed in the same way, but they were in debt over their heads with things they didn’t need, but wanted to have because “everyone else” had them. They were burdened by debt, and it was not an easy burden to bear.
Why? Is it the power of advertising? You know the ads where drinking the right beer is sure to lead to a great party on a tropical beach, and who could resist owning the car that delivers you, and a beautiful date, to an exclusive event? If family values are more your thing, a different right car will deliver the right spouse, adorable children, a happy dog, and trouble free road trip vacations. Depending, of course, on using the right toothpaste, deodorant, and laundry detergent. I would like to think we know it’s all make believe, but maybe we don’t. I also wonder if there’s a more subtle self reinforcing cultural thing going on.
Ralph, whom I knew so many years ago, believed that all successful executives carried the right briefcase, so if he got one, he too would be seen as a successful executive as he walked down the street. To be seen for what he wanted to be was everything. The quality of his work was never a part of the equation. Dave hoped his car and boat would give him a respected place in society. It didn’t. It seems that for many in our small city, the right 4x4 pickup has replaced the right briefcase and car. How different is that from high school when wearing the right sneakers was the symbol of record? Without them, all was lost. Oh the shame of it. My sociologist friends no doubt have shelves of research explaining it all. As for me, I wonder how what they explain might be made useful to teachers, pastors and counselors as ammunition to fight back.
There’s nothing wrong with having fine clothing, owning a cool car, truck or boat, or even an expensive briefcase. If you can afford it, go for it. It’s wrong for them to become idols worshiped, held in esteem for the worthiness they bestow on their owners. What does the psalmist say? “They have mouths, but don’t speak; eyes, but can’t see; ears, but can’t hear; and there’s no breath in them (Ps. 135). They can’t deliver, so don’t ask them to do what they can’t do.