By Sarah Eisner
Ten-year-old Wilson tilted away from me on the two back legs of his chair and balanced there with the ease of a water buoy. He was studying, as I’d begun to notice was routine before he ate after-school-snack, the haphazard collage of our photos I posted to the bulletin board on the adjacent wall. I leaned toward him from across our kitchen-cum-dining room table.
After a moment he plunked down on all four legs and stripped off his favorite white Stanford tee, then seemed to focus on the image I never switched out: a year-old picture taken during a launch celebration at my office. In it my husband, Noah, my younger son, Ben, Wilson, and I are shoveling huge chunks of what looks like bright pink wedding cake into our open smiling mouths; in the background, my co-founder, my employees, my family and friends—nearly everyone I love in my Silicon Valley circle—are grinning at us, blurrily displaying teeth tinged pink with sugar and wine.
“That was a good cake,” Wilson reminisced.
“It’s good I’m home now,” I said, mostly to myself, though I nodded at the premade burrito I’d managed to heat for him. He looked at me with his deep blue, diving pool eyes.
“I kind of wish you had a job still,” he said.
“Why…” My stomach sunk and my voice caught, “…do you say that?”
Wilson looked down, poked the burrito, and then his neck lengthened somehow. We had surprised one another, but he was an honest boy. He gazed up at me. “Because then our whole family would be successful.”
“What,” I said, and I wanted to add, the hell did you just say? But I dutifully refrained.
Wilson was assessing my reaction, watching my shoulders, which had begun to droop. “Mom,” he said. “It’s not bad.” His regret was elephantine; I knew I should rescue him. He was ten, and a patch on his smooth white neck was beginning to flush cardinal. His collarbone seemed to curl around his sternum and cave his chest inward, as if in an attempt to protect his whole heart, and he glanced across the floor at his shirt, as if he just wanted to put it back on. But I was angry. Not at him, but at everyone.
“I mean your company was cool,” Wilson said. “I liked it. And Dad’s is cool too.”
“I know,” I agreed. “But I like this, too.” And I did like being with him. But I hadn’t known it would feel so much like shame.
In the past 20 years, I’d studied engineering, traveled the world training men on Internet routing technology, and co-founded three companies. In the past 30 days, I’d been ousted from my own company, and learned that inhaling hot bacon and salty lard runoff as the sun rises on a well-deserved weekend morning is comforting and heady, but smelling residual animal fat coagulate like candle wax in the dirty glass jar by the microwave as the lunch hour approaches during what used to be a work day with nothing to do and no decisions to make is, for me, oppressive and dire.
This was not real oppression, and to use the word “dire” is too bleak. I had ample choice in the matter; I could afford to stay home. I also could have gone right back to my striving. And yet, I vaguely knew getting another tech job would just make things worse. I wasn’t yet sure why.
Wilson nodded. “Sorry,” he said. “Why’d I say that?” He duck-dived beneath the wave of tension I hated myself for having formed, and brought his face down to the burrito instead of lifting it up to his mouth. He took a bite, and I stifled a sob.
The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion. I had chosen it on a lunch break years ago and hung it in my home’s most visible spot like a cross.
I knew that we need to hold these values in at least equal measure; that success in life is about personal striving, but it is also more importantly about being kind. As an entrepreneur I was known mostly for my hard work: a limited virtue. Once home, I worried that I would be known only for being nice, although I so often felt pissed off at myself and unlikable.
“It’s okay buddy,” I said, thinking I’m sorry, Wilson. I could see that he knew I was lying and he didn’t like it. I wanted to tell him it was not a lie but a half-truth. What he had said was okay. But increasingly, I was not. Because although I so badly wanted to feel good enough, my gut said he was right. I was newly forty, and a failed entrepreneur. Without a title or a paying job, I felt as if aside from my life with my family, I did nothing. I produced nothing. I only consumed. This made me feel both worthless, and extravagantly self-centered. I was not enough for Silicon Valley, and motherhood was not enough for me.
Here is what I imagined Wilson innocently asked of me: Why don’t you have a job like Dad? I thought you were good at it. I thought you loved running a company. So tell me, Mom, if you’re not working and happy now, then what was it all for? What are you now?
“Come on,” I said, “eat.” Wilson had soccer practice in an hour and I needed him to feel strong.
I wondered how long that sign would haunt me. There was no fucking chance I was taking it down.
“The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion.”
Optimism is our most positive word related to striving: the striving we do to satisfy needs or achieve. When we hear optimism, we think of things we hope for or desire: lasting love, pleasure, and the security of peace. When we hear optimism, we think of upward mobility, ambition, and grit: the requirements to cash in on the American promise of “the good life.” The good life: the ability to pause and be satisfied; to let go, and feel free.
“A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” American scholar and cultural critic Lauren Berlant writes in her book “Cruel Optimism” (2011). “It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being.” These objects are not inherently cruel or harmful, Berlant explains, but become cruel when they actively prevent you from the very thing they promise to enable.
It’s possible that when Wilson said he wished our whole family were successful, he simply meant he wished our whole family were accomplished. But later, I began to wonder if it was something more generous, and also more alarming. I began to think he could see that I wasn’t feeling good, and he didn’t like it. But instead of saying he wished our whole family were happy, he said “successful.” Maybe he chose “successful” because achievement was what he identified with most as making me happy. Maybe the kind of extreme striving for success we worship in Silicon Valley today was already the main thing he’d attached to what would make him happy, and define him as good enough.
That is what scared me.
I asked my children to work hard and be nice, an ethos in which I will always believe. But what did that sign represent, and how might it send the wrong message or be connected to the Silicon Valley ethos of never-enough today?
The American mythology is: work hard and follow the rules and you can achieve “the good life” dream. But while we often equate this ethic with the optimistic sounding platitude “Work Hard and Be Nice,” and a moderate life, it’s worth examining where this ethic actually came from, and the fact that it often isn’t associated with doing particularly good work, or with being kind.
Manifest destiny legitimized the idea that God had ordained the white protestant male as worthy and good with a boundless right to pillage and conquer. This limitlessness inspired a long tradition of dichotomous either-or thinking. If you happen to be able to amass increasing land, power or wealth, you’re good. If you’re not, then you’re told you’re bad. But truly being kind—to ourselves, to our children, to others—requires being open to the fluidity between good and bad; it requires real compassion, and more than a single definition of what success, and “enough” means. The high moral code of Manifest Destiny was and is, instead, less generous, more circular: keep the momentum of white protestant imperialism going.
“Our national faith so far has been: There’s always more,” the American cultural critic Wendell Berry writes. “Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism.”
There are many different kinds of religion. There is the kind of religion you are forced to observe as a child and that makes you feel shame. There is the kind of religion that lights you up for God as an adult and makes you want to believe. There is the kind of religion—I am good or I am bad, I am this or I am that—like routine prayer inside your head. There is the kind of religion—Let Go and Let God—you adopt to try to ease I need this or I need that. There is the kind of religion that spreads across the cubicles, break rooms, and happy hours where you work, and there is the kind of religion you practice with your body on a mat, on a mountain, or in a pool. There is the kind of religion you openly reject as extreme or on the fringe, and then there is another kind of religion. It is the kind you don’t think of as religion at all, because it is all around you but not named.
Sarah Eisner is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.