“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own… If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
– Barack Obama July 13, 2012
When I heard President Obama utter those words I just about lost it. Usually I view the entire freakshow of politics as an insane sidebar — but this statement, made during the 2012 presidential campaign, marked one of those moments when a candidate inadvertently got up in my kitchen. All politics is local, but in this case it got personal. For me, those words had all the awareness of serving pork chops to a kosher vegan. I felt this way because I did build my business from nothing — a small architecture firm.
It opened in 1987, three weeks after the stock market lost 22.6% of its value in one day. The office has weathered four recessions. I have made every payroll, every mortgage payment, and have never laid anyone off in 30 years. Being deeply competitive, every one of our 700 projects (including 200 pro bono designs for non-profits) was sourced by me. Being an egomaniac jackass, every project was, and is, designed by me. So my outrage was based on the fact that I did, in fact, “build that.” The “self-made [sexism trigger warning] man” is not just a Teddy Roosevelt/Ayn Rand/Donald Trump meme; it’s what a lot of humans spend their lives actually doing — whether liberal or conservative.
But we are in the middle of fractious times in the lame soap opera of politics. Ideologies mean less than personalities. There is unrelenting trolling 24/7/365, because we are human. My personalization of the political was just a tiny take on what has become a tidal wave of change.
I think my response to President Obama’s words mirrored that of many who, in the last seven years, voted to reinvent the entire governmental apparatus at every level — House, then Senate, then governors, then state houses — now the presidency. I live in the Bluest of Blue places: Connecticut, but I can and do grok those who voted to validate their lives of making things happen without any evidence of social, cultural, or governmental aid. But I, like every other Christian, know that my need for validation is a screaming signal of my fragility.
My flip-out over President Obama’s words simply proves that my humanity can drift completely away from God in my life. Everything I have done in this world — including designing all those projects and meeting all those payrolls — was undeniably by my hands, but completely through God’s grace.
Everything anyone has done in this world only comes when the drive and skills we are born with are bathed in the gifts of circumstance (that I so fully feed upon), and, somehow, disease and disaster are held at bay long enough to fulfill our mission in life. Not much control there — more an abundance of Grace.
Who knows if President Trump has any sense of this fragility that he shares with everyone — even the most successful among us. But at some point everyone senses the fragility of the human condition: we are the only beings that are fully aware of their own death.
So I have come to know that, in fact, no matter how hard I kicked ass, I did not get here on my own. Every breath was given to me by the miracle of life, let alone health. I have a life partner, not because of any charm or animal magnetism, but because of the miracle of connection. We have children not because of my “motility” or my wife’s alkaline cervical mucus — it’s because we are all miraculously improbable results of a hideously complex process.
We all want to believe that we are “building that.” We want to be in control. We want the arithmetic of Good Intentions fed in Freedom to leverage Hard Work that is then expressed in Fairness that will get the Outcome of Success — easy for a well-educated white male to say. But that message is what all humans want to be true — even if it’s not for those who are not in my demo.
Despite my faith in God, it’s hard to embrace the reality that building my business is not due to the endless labor that actually happened, and happens — every day. Whether we voted for Trump, Clinton, or Voldemort, we want to be fully successful. When anyone says that my autonomy is a myth, that it’s a self-serving delusion, my first response starts with the letter F. And yet I know whatever I have done, it’s a gift — just not a gift given by the creations of other humans.
When the President of the United States tells millions of my fellow “Built that”-ers “you did not build that,” it’s hard to get the bigger reality, the one that God and his Son unrelenting whisper — well actually scream — in my ear when I ascend to high dungeon protesting my worth.
I want to be Don Corelone, but in the reality of God’s overwhelming Grace I sound much more like Fredo. All Christians have this central conflict of interest; it’s the perpetual adolescent conundrum of knowing you have capabilities, you have desire, you even achieve some things, but in the end, you know, deeply, that you owe it all to the support of your parents.
I wish I knew anything as well as President Obama knew that I actually did not build my business, or believe as deeply as President Trump believes that he can make America great again: but that is why this is not a political piece. Politics and religion are not just strange bedfellows — they are, to me, antithetical.
Of course, values are present in politics, including Christian values: but Jesus isn’t running for any office, anywhere. In this oddest of political seasons where action/reaction seems supercharged with defensiveness and anger on all sides I take faith in what I cannot control: the love of God that passes all understanding.