The Predetermined Life Many people can relate to feeling a need to escape from their past. More specifically, people feel the need to escape the expectations placed on them because of their social class or gender. Both of these things can have a great impact on what we become as adults and because of them there are certain expectations placed on children and their futures. Many children do not see another life other than that which has been lived by those before them.
Scott Sanders, in his writing “The Men We Carry in Our Minds”, talks at length about his understanding of men and their place in society as people and workers based on what he saw around him growing up. His childhood views stemmed from living in a social class where the men worked hard for their livings. Later, Sanders’ views are broadened when he gets the opportunity to attend a rather prestigious university. Similarly, James, the narrating character from Alistair MacLeod’s short story “The Vastness of Darkness” comes from a long line of hard working miners.
In an effort to escape the possibility of becoming a miner, like his father and grandfather, he discovers it may be harder than he first expected. The working fate of so many children seems already set in stone because of their gender or social class. The dismal prospect of becoming tired and old before their age makes them drives many of them to explore other options only to find that they either cannot or do not want to change. Both Sanders and Macleod write about a working class of people.
A community of men who work very hard for very little and in many cases such work has a very negative effect on their bodies. According to Sanders’, men had two options as adults. “Warriors and toilers: those seemed, in my boyhood vision, to be the chief destinies for men” (Sanders 569). As soldiers they got to play a fair amount but they also had to fight in wars and kill or be killed. Working men ended up with bodies that aged much faster then those who just sat behind desks. An excellent example of a workingman comes from MacLeod’s story.
It is that of James’ family and the life their men lead as coal miners. James describes his grandfather’s friends as “mine-mutilated old men” (MacLeod 364). Even his father had a disfigured hand and a long scar running down the side of his face from mining accidents. These effects of being a “toiler” do not stop at the surface. Sanders says, “the bodies of the men I knew were twisted and maimed in ways visible and invisible” (Sanders 569). Not only do these men bear the mark of their life’s work as muscle and scars but also in ways unseen by the naked eye.
For example the men who are deaf from working around machines their whole life or the miners James knew who had lungs black with coal dust. Those are still physical symptoms of hard work though and there are even more still that are not physical at all. In addition to the physical trauma suffered by “toilers” they can also suffer from psychological and emotional stresses that extend to the family as well. In MacLeod’s story the women in James’ family have always wanted better for their sons than a coal miner’s life.
In the other mining towns the women sleep with strangers to fill some void left behind when their husband’s die in cave-ins. Seeing such a sad and painful future makes a child wonder if they can change their own future. Many children feel destined to follow in their family’s footsteps. They are even taught that it is their future to follow the past. This is something that affects views of both men and women from all social classes and has for many generations. Sanders say, “When I think back on my childhood, on how I learned to see men and women, I have a sense of ancient, dizzying depth” (Sanders 568).
His views had been so ingrained by generations of the same that the thought of it all was overwhelming. If nothing has changed from generations past then what suggests that it can change now. This is reinforced by MacLeod in a conversation between James and his grandfather when his grandfather tells him, “Once you start [mining] it takes a hold of you, once you drink underground water, you will always come back to drink some more” (MacLeod 367). Many think that just because their father’s have done it and maybe even they have tried it means that they will always come back to it.
After Sanders watched his own father climb out of a toiler’s job he still though that “even partial escape from a man’s fate […] did not seem possible for most boys I knew” (Sanders 570). The pressures of social class make it hard to see another option. Even after having personally witnessed his own father climb up an out of his lower class job, Sanders still had a hard time believing that this was something possible for himself and the other boys he knew growing up. This is not a concept that is restricted to the lower class either.
Upon receiving a scholarship to a good university, Sanders met others of privilege who had a much different understanding of life. The boys he met there “had assumed from birth that they would lead lives of comfort and power” simply because their father’s before them had (Sanders 570). The idea that past dictates future applies to all social classes and in many cases the idea is not always a welcome one. James knew that he didn’t want to become like his father and grandfather.
One of his main reasons for wanting to get out of his home town, which felt more like a prison, was that he “must not become [his] father” who always seemed in such a hurry “only to go nowhere” (MacLeod 365). The idea of being stuck in such a town doing exactly what he didn’t want to do was enough to motivate anyone to leave. At the same time, the women at Sanders college had fathers who were not “the sort of men [Sanders] had known in [his] childhood […] The daughters of such men wanted to share in this power, this glory” (Sanders 571).
The women at the university saw him as they saw their fathers and assumed that he would have a life of privilege simply because of his gender. These same women saw themselves as destined to become their mothers and bound to stay home as a wife, mother and maid always taking care of the family. They resented the idea that they could not have power and glory because of their gender just as James resented the idea of being a miner because his fathers before him were and Sanders felt bound to be a ‘toiler’ because of his gender and social class.
I think that every one of us feels the pressure of expectation from family, friends, community and society. Despite all of those ingrained beliefs of what we should become or how we must behave we do have a choice. We can choose to crumble under the pressure of we can choose to reach and strive and become a diamond in the rough. Of course, as James says, “perhaps it is better to have a place to go to that you hate than to have no place at all” (MacLeod 367). It is a bittersweet relief to think that a person can at least go back to where they came from if they can find no where else to go.