Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins

*This seems like common sense but it bears repeating: No one can look at what’s in front of them and what’s behind them at the same time.

The closest you get is a rear view mirror in a car. But even then your focus is on one and your peripheral vision allows you to notice the other. There is an essential truth in this illustration. It takes great effort to move ahead in life and usually that movement is due to great focus on a goal that is ahead of you. Conversely when you take your focus away from your goals it becomes very easy to stagnate. Even worse is looking at your past because it becomes almost impossible to continue on the forward path you might have been on; in fact it becomes much more likely that you’ll begin moving backwards.

At least half of the inspirational advice that people give is some version of this message. A good deal of Facebook memes and Twitter posts also echo this sentiment. This is because it is a simple statement that people often forget, so when the idea gets restated by friends or repackaged on social media with trendy images we eat it up all over again.

Everyone is always encouraged to focus on their goals and push forward. That is part and parcel of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But there are two notable exceptions – that is, people who are not encouraged to focus on going forward: the economically disadvantaged and professional athletes.

Right away I will admit that I am not really referring to all professional athletes because I don’t follow pro lacrosse and so I can say whether they face the same pressures as pro baseball players. Furthermore there probably are some pro athletes who, for whatever reason, are not looked at as the savior for those in their immediate circle.

Nevertheless there are many athletes who are encouraged not only to look forward toward their goals in life and to realize their potential but at the same time encouraged to help out many people who knew them as they grew up. Theoretically these folks deserve to be remembered because they helped, in some way, the athlete develop into the professional sportsman that is earning hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. This is ridiculous.

I am reminded of the words of a professor of mine: Walter McDougall. “You cannot possibly repay the people who took care of you when you were a helpless infant, nor can anyone repay the people who educate you.” The more you think about this statement, the accuracy becomes more apparent. At some point we were all babies that would have died if not for some adult feeding us, and clothing us. At some point we were all blank tablets waiting to be filled with information which others took the responsibility of teaching. There is no way to give back to these people because we can never meet them when they are as helpless as we were. But instead of pro athletes thinking this way, all too often they take the exact opposite perspective and feel like they must help everyone.

People from humble economic backgrounds are put in a similar position when they reach a level of success. The person who grows up in an financially depressed neighborhood is implored “not to forget about where they came from.” Ok. What does that ultimately mean? Does it mean keeping in mind the struggle to get a career and exercise social mobility in moving from the underclass to the middle class in the United States? Does it mean not moving out of the neighborhood? Does it mean trying to help others replicate your success?

I have begun listening to podcasts of the Max and Marcellus show, the afternoon rush hour show on ESPN LA radio. A repeated joke is that Marcellus, a native of the Compton section of Los Angeles, has run from his humble beginnings. It is funny the way they present it. But the reason this joke can even be made is because there is the very real perception among some that Marcellus has turned his back on the community.

I’m not sure we should expect and/or guilt those who have been successful to not enjoy the fruits of their labor but instead to unduly give their time and wealth to those who by happenstance were family, friends and acquaintances during childhood.

I’m almost sure that someone will email me and say that this column contradicts the concept of socialism and therefore the core of my philosophy. Not quite. Looking backward and being guilted into helping people from your past, or even willingly helping people from your hometown at best creates an insular system of opportunity. Meaning – only people in your circle of friends or neighborhood will get the benefits of knowing you. At worst (and if the 30 for 30 documentary Broke is any indication, things are far likelier to go poorly than to go well) it is a waste of resources. Socialism on the other hand is a philosophy that allows for everyone in society to benefit from an individuals success by pouring resources back into society with the hopes of producing more successes. Socialism has the same potential for failure and the waste of resources. But it has a much greater potential for positive because everyone is a potential beneficiary instead of only those close to the successful person. One is about local opportunity; the other is about universal opportunity.

Everyone should focus on their personal goals. Personal charity is admirable and should be undertaken, but it is not the most efficient way of producing additional successes.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected]