The popular science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote a post on his web log some months back about how he owed his success as a writer not only to his own efforts, but to public services and to people who helped him along the way. He spoke of his birth at an Air Force hospital, his gratitude for public schools and public libraries, how his divorced mother at times had to rely on welfare and food stamps, and his scholarships to an elite private school and then to the University of Chicago. He named and thanked teachers who encouraged him and editors who gave him opportunities as a writer.
None of this would have availed him anything if he had not had the talent and the determination to become a good writer. But it would have been a lot harder, and maybe impossible, to develop as a writer and to find a public without the help of others. It is not an either/or proposition.
Scalzi concluded as follows.
I have helped others too. I am financially successful now; I pay a lot of taxes. I don’t mind because I know how taxes helped me to get to the fortunate position I am in today. I hope the taxes I pay will help some military wife give birth, a mother who needs help feed her child, help another child learn and fall in love with the written word, and help still another get through college. Likewise, I am in a socially advantageous position now, where I can help promote the work of others here and in other places. I do it because I can, because I think I should and because I remember those who helped me. It honors them and it sets the example for those I help to help those who follow them.
I know what I have been given and what I have taken. I know to whom I owe. I know that what work I have done and what I have achieved doesn’t exist in a vacuum or outside of a larger context, or without the work and investment of other people, both within the immediate scope of my life and outside of it. I like the idea that I pay it forward, both with the people I can help personally and with those who will never know that some small portion of their own hopefully good fortune is made possible by me.
So much of how their lives will be depends on them, of course, just as so much of how my life is has depended on my own actions. We all have to be the primary actors in our own lives. But so much of their lives will depend on others, too, people near and far. We all have to ask ourselves what role we play in the lives of others — in the lives of loved ones, in the lives of our community, in the life of our nation and in the life of our world. I know my own answer for this. It echoes the answer of those before me, who helped to get me where I am.
My professional achievements are less than John Scalzi’s, but my sentiments are the same.
Through my life, many people helped me along the way. In my old age, I enjoy helping others in my turn, not in a self-sacrificial way but as a source of pleasure and satisfaction. I benefited and still benefit from public services, from education in public schools and a state university to the benefits of Social Security and Medicare. I feel shame that the next generation is not going to be able to have what I have.
There is more to life than (1) accumulating stuff and (2) resisting pressure to share my stuff.