Lead and Fate

There’s an interesting article in Mother Jones, or more accurately a meta-article, which discusses the research that’s been done linking the decline in childhood lead exposure in the 1970’s and onwards to the decline in crime rates in the 1990’s, when those kids would have hit adulthood. It’s sobering reading.

I was born in Europe, which banned lead paint far before America, and I was past the whole eating-paint-chips phase of life by the time I moved here. So, by an accident of birth, I got to spend my most vulnerable brain development years safe from lead paint, while my age cohort peers in the US did not. This is especially true for kids in my age range who lived in substandard housing.

I was a smart kid. All the adults praised me and complimented me for being smart, as if it was an accomplishment, rather than an accident of birth. But now I see that, in addition to winning the genetic lottery for math ability, I also won a “right time and place” lottery for avoidance of lead. All these things I had literally nothing to do with, helped me to excel in school and get whatever success I’ve had in life.

America is a country with a strong mythos. It’s a fairy tale made by corporate backers, and then spun into the fabric of our society until its origins are obscured in the mists of time. The fairy tale says, You are more than just your circumstances, You can accomplish anything you set your mind to, Random misfortune is not going to defeat You, You can overcome anything with Pure Grit.

We’re fed these stories ad infinitum.

But if the quintessentially American truth – or should I say “truth” – is  about excelling in spite of adversity and not being defined by circumstance, the quintessential truth  keep coming back to is the opposite: how much of one’s life is circumscribed by random chance. How things that happened decades ago, in childhood, over which we had no control, can still limit our lives right now, today.

The can-do Americanism holds within it a darkness, which is the seed of judgement and rejection. If anyone can overcome anything, then your failure to overcome must be a character flaw. And if you’re just making bad decisions, then I don’t have any responsibilities to help you, as a fellow human being.

But being aware that random circumstances can have profound after effects creates the opposite feeling. There but for the grace of God go I. And with that feeling comes the responsibility to help our fellow humans, in whatever circumstance.