The Multitude of External Factors Impacting Our Lives

Our lives are impacted by a wide variety of external factors that influence who we become and what we can do before we’re born and being aware of these factors is the first step to understanding the frameworks that direct our existence.

Mar 31, 2023

The Multitude of External Factors Impacting Our Lives

Growing up, I had people in my life who let me do what I enjoyed. Regardless how wild my dreams may have sounded, they fortunately didn’t reject my everchanging aspirations to be things like an archeologist, paleontologist, veterinarian, or whatever other idea my uninhibited mind could conjure. I was able to exist. What I’ve learned, though, is that even if we may be able to dream, there’s so many factors that prevent us from having access to these dreams. From our third grade reading levels to the zip codes we live in to our parents’ abilities and education, our future success is determined by so many factors out of our control. All this impacts where we begin our lives, which inevitably dictates the direction our lives can go and the distance our lives can cover. 

In an unintentionally, yet very, deterministic take, much of our lives has already been determined by our parents’ DNA, health, background and education, the communities they live in, the types of jobs they have, and the money they make. By the time we’re born, so much of our life is already predetermined for varying levels of success or failure based on our parents alone, like a mother’s reading level is a child’s greatest determinant for their academic success. Then, there’s larger systemic variables that impact the realities realistically within our reach. The color of our skin impacts our overall access to success despite adhering to Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins’s “success sequence.” Third grade reading levels predict one’s likelihood to graduate from high school. The zip code that we’re born and raised in is another huge determining factor because it determines the quality of education and resources within our reach. Each of these critical lifechanging factors equally out of our control.

This is where the movement away from equality and towards equity stems from. We begin life at unique and diverse starting points. Because of this, it’s important to acknowledge a person’s starting point and provide what one may need to adjust and correct imbalances, inequities, and injustices. There will always be someone who, despite unwavering odds, triumphs. They gain upward economic mobility and measure high in the human development index. Yet, for many others, this level of success isn’t attainable for an array of circumstances, which is rarely because someone didn’t work hard enough or try hard enough. Someone can do all the right “things” as Sawhill and Haskins describe—graduate high school, have a full-time job, and have children after 21—and still struggle to pay rent, face homelessness, skip meals all while often acquiring massive debt. 

There’s a disparity between the idea of “opportunity” and the reality of being able to achieve significant success. Over the last 50 years, the American Dream has taken on the shape of an actual dream as it becomes a more and more distant reality. The American Dream is being able to achieve one’s version of success through hard work and determination alone. However, rates of “absolute mobility,” a person’s household income by age 30 compared to their parents’ at age 30 that’s adjusted for inflation, fell from 90% of children born in 1940 to 40% of children born in 1980. In another post, I talk about this and how hard hit the millennial generation has been with three huge economic disasters.

The hard part is the scale and breadth at which these critical life factors function. At an individual level, some of these factors, like systemic racism or poverty, could be practically invisible because they’re so ingrained into our social fabric. The compartmentalization of our world is one point of blame. When the world is siloed into disconnected chunks—like race, geography, health, history, government—it’s difficult to see and even more challenging to learn how these seemingly unrelated topics are in fact interrelated and interconnected. This compartmentalization is intentional, something thinker Frantz Fanon argues in terms of colonial racism in The Wretched of the Earth. If we’re unable to make larger connections and see how problems are part of long systemic traditions to uphold the power of the few at the risk of the many, then these systems become hard to see and feel impossible to dismantle. 

Recently, Republicans in North Dakota just blocked a bill by one vote to provide free school lunch to kids from low-income families. Senator Mike Wobbema (R-Valley City) shoots down the bill by saying:

“We talk about personal responsibility as one of the major principles that the Republican party stands on. Yes, I can understand kids going hungry, but is that really the problem of the school district? Is that the problem of the State of North Dakota? It’s really the problem of parents being negligent with their kids, if their kids are choosing to eat in the first place…I don’t believe that it’s our responsibility to carry on a program in excess of what the federal government already does. Where does it stop?” 

Regardless that eating is a necessity not a choice, there’s so much wrong with this rationale. Making this decision about personal responsibility rather than acknowledging the many social and economic factors that determines whether someone can feed their children is itself irresponsible and negligent. I don't know one parent who doesn't work incredibly hard to make sure their child is comfortable, happy, and healthy, which includes well fed. When children go to school hungry, the root cause is poverty and all of the threads that build a system where poverty can exist in one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s Cesar Chavez Day, and all week I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of seeing the way these larger systems affect our daily lives. This meditation isn’t intended to instill a sense of helplessness but to acknowledge the multitude of external factors that impact our lives. Each day, every one of us is doing the best we can in spite of the systems that were constructed without our consent or input. Systems that were often constructed to keep many of us out. Systems that even today fail to listen and do right by the people. Each day, we find ways to navigate these systems and find incredible moments of love, joy, and beauty. These are the things worth fighting for. And, each day, people are out there fighting for this and so much more for a better world.