Today, I want to talk about Hillbilly Elegy and how it can improve you as an individual.
What Is Hillbilly Elegy?
“There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.” – J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance’s life was rife with drug abuse, childhood trauma, and self-destruction. For example, his mother was a drug addict, his community was falling apart spiritually and financially, and he had a distant relationship with his father. Although his grandparents were a light in his life, they too were abusive, flawed, and broken people.
Despite his upbringing, J.D. broke the cycle of violence and abuse. He joined the military, settled down, grappled with his trauma, and achieved financial success. As with all remarkable individuals, he overcame the hell he was borne into.
Why should you read Hillbilly Elegy?
Hillbilly Elegy provides nuggets of wisdom and insight into two things. Firstly, J.D. highlights an individual’s responsibility to himself. J.D. did not grow up in a stable, moral, or nurturing world. However, he managed to take the sparks of joy he could find and use those sparks to develop himself into a better man. As individualists, we must remember how powerful we are in improving ourselves regardless of the hells around us.
Secondly, J.D. Vance argues against the soft bigotry of holding the disenfranchised to a lower standard. J.D. highlights the struggles, trauma, and pain everyone in his environment experienced. However, he argues, as all individuals should, that people need to fight to become their best selves in spite of the trauma. Additionally, no amount of low expectations will ever help people. We can only help others by holding them to a higher standard and helping them reach that standard.
Therefore, I want to explore the lessons individuals can learn from Hillbilly Elegy. Through this book, you will respect the nuances in human relationships while learning why the soft bigotry of low expectations must be rejected if we want to improve society.
1. We have to Protect Others from Our Trauma
J.D. Vance paints a picture of the brokenness in Appalachia by highlight the drug abuse, degraded homes, and domestic abuse. For example, he tells the disturbing story of his grandmother setting his grandfather on fire for a minor dispute.
Insightfully, J.D. highlights how abuse and poverty are primarily generational. For example, children learn from their parents to spend frivolously, and this behavior pushes financial instability into the next generation. Another example: children live in homes full of screaming and hitting, so when they begin to settle down, they repeat the same patterns of violence.
We Can Change Our Destiny
“I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.’ The Marine Corps excised that feeling like a surgeon does a tumor.” – J.D. Vance
However, J.D. provides examples of himself and others who have risen above the cycle of abuse. He remembers a moment when he was dating his now-wife, and he yelled at her because of a small argument. He took a walk and realized his yelling was the result of learned behavior from his childhood. Despite being far from home, with a steady job, and respected education, he still carried the scars and habits from his childhood.
However, J.D. did not give up. He worked on himself and learned how to maintain his emotions. He sought professional help like many others when they decide to step away from the cycle of abuse. Such a process is not easy, as I and many others have experienced, but the process is worth it.
And why is overcoming such abusive learned behavior worth it? Primarily, we are responsible for ourselves. Our damaged childhoods do not excuse us from becoming the best versions of ourselves. We may have a long way to climb, but we cannot give up.
Understand Your Trauma to Better Manage Yourself
Abuse spreads like a disease, and individuals are responsible for halting it whenever they can. J.D.’s childhood shows what happens when the violence of the past infects the present and continue onward. However, I believe everyone, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, economic status, or national origin, has to do what they can to stop spreading the abuse they suffered.
This responsibility includes the poor and the oppressed. The poor are not exempt from virtue or incapable of achieving it. I despise the determinist narratives which paint the poor as weak and inadequate. No matter how oppressed one is, they can still treat their children with respect or respond with patience to stressful situations. I am not asking for perfection, I am asking for effort and an expectation such effort will be delivered.
As J.D. points out, his grandparents were flawed people, but they tried to do right by him. They could not save their daughter (J.D.’s mother) from drug abuse, but their kindness helped J.D. become a better person, despite his upbringing.
Nothing improves unless the individual improves. We cannot stop the self-implosion of society unless individuals are willing to overcome their traumatic and abusive pasts.
2. We must treat those who are struggling with more humanity
You cannot treat a person as fully human until you set them to a standard. Collectivists and charlatans argue people cannot control themselves. However, when we pretend people are incapable of doing basic things, such as managing their sexual urges or violent outbursts, then we are implicitly saying they are no better than animals.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance shows how society cannot help the poor without holding them to some standard. For example, he admits his mother had a horrible, destructive childhood. This childhood left her scarred, broken, and lost. However, he still holds her to a standard and acknowledges her drug abuse, violence towards him, and her dishonesty are self-destructive, harmful to others, and unacceptable.
But this is the power of J.D.’s memoir. He shows grace and patience for the pains of his mother. His shows humanity that I am guilty of failing to show. He holds people to a standard but remembers they are human. Furthermore, by holding them to a standard, he affirms their humanity.
You Must Hold Everyone to A Standard
“A good friend…once told me, ‘The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins’.” – J.D. Vance
As I said before, holding people to a standard affirms their humanity. Why? Because only humans possess the reason and ability to set a standard then reach it. Dogs, elephants, whales, and other mammals cannot set a higher goal then achieve it. Nor can they experience pride when doing so. When we deny people the chance to become better, we deny them the ability to reason, try, achieve, and celebrate. These elements, to me, make life worth living.
Furthermore, setting standards prevents the downtrodden from abusing others. However, this humanity includes setting clear, achievable standards. Yes, it would be unfair to declare poor people should just “get a better job” or homeless people should just “find a place to stay.” However, it is not unfair, in fact, it is humane, to demand financial prudence, healthy habits, and better attitudes from those who are struggling. Once again, if we believe a poor person is incapable of understanding why they should buy fruits instead of junk food, then we show how little we regard the poor.
Lastly, reading Hillbilly Elegy helped me understand what to do when I see someone struggling. I always avoid automatic, brutal judgments, such as “he’s just lazy” or “she’s irresponsible.” Furthermore, if you are able, give what you can. As always, never help people without the hope they will improve their lives. If you help people without expectations, they may abuse your trust, and you’ll feed bad habits instead of fostering healthy ones.
3. Childhood is where people are broken
“Children with multiple ACEs are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression, to suffer from heart disease and obesity, and to contract certain types of cancers. They’re also more likely to underperform in school and suffer from relationship instability as adults. Even excessive shouting can damage a kid’s sense of security and contribute to mental health and behavioral issues down the road.” – J.D. Vance
Childhoods are where people are torn apart and broken. Most people, abusive people, especially, are broken and abused as children. Thus, to prevent the cycle of abuse, there has to be a decrease in the abuse of children. For example, J.D.’s mother grew up in a household of constant fighting, setting people on fire, and “honor culture.” When J.D. was older, he told a snarky joke to her, and she proceeded to relentlessly chase him with the full intent of doing him serious harm. If her childhood had not been as brutal and violent as it was, I doubt J.D.’s mother would have responded so viciously to anything, let alone a snarky comment from her son.
Furthermore, J.D. highlights the need for stabler childhoods by pointing out how his family went through hell and gave each other horrible experiences. He shows how the awful behaviors of his grandparents extended to his mother and him. He acknowledges how many people in his neighborhood grew up with yelling and hitting and how these people followed the same path as adults. Conversely, he shows how his wife, who had a happy childhood, has none of the abuses and pain he grew up with.
Childhood is where the world is improved
“Nothing compares to the fear that you’re becoming the monster in your closet.” – J.D. Vance
People are broken in childhood, and most “solutions” to societal issues are just window dressing. Welfare, federal benefits, financial aid, etc. wouldn’t be as needed if children weren’t mocked, beaten, and molested. Would we really need welfare if more families stayed together and parents raised children in stable home environments? Would childhood obesity exist if parents stop being lazy and selfish and cared for their children? Furthermore, would so many people be jaded and nihilistic if their childhoods were filled with purpose, stability, and happiness?
For individualists, the lesson here is to treat our children well and firmly. Every insult, slap, or yell we give our children hurts them and undermines their mental health. Therefore, try to emulate the best behavior and provide as much wisdom as you can. You will not be perfect, but the honest pursuit of virtue is what matters.
Reduce any anger or violence you may show your children and seek to give them a stable environment where they are loved and cared for. If you do not have children, try to provide happiness to children in any small way you can. Making a silly face at a sad child, for example, can make a difference.
4. The government will always fail to help people
“They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.” – J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance has a healthy skepticism of government involvement. He highlights how the government will struggle to help people, especially those who won’t help themselves.
For example, people abusing the welfare system are not helping themselves, and giving them more money doesn’t magically solve their abuse of the system. He also highlights how he had good teachers at his public schools, but they struggled to help him because he had such a terrible home life. The best public school education cannot reach kids who are broken from abuse at home. That is not the teachers’ or the government’s fault.
Individuals must help themselves and build better communities
“Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them.” – J.D. Vance
As individualists, we have to recognize the government is not the solution to most complex social and moral issues. The government cannot be a parent or a friend or a caregiver. It can be a retributive force, a legal protector, and a defense force. But, it cannot be a social champion.
Therefore, if we wish to help people, then we have to recognize the solutions will never come from the bureaucrats. Push back against anyone who will insult you because you believe communities can better regulate and help each other if the government was decreased and not involved.
5. The world is complex, but we must steer ourselves toward virtue
The last lesson I took from J.D.’s book is how complicated the world is. Nevertheless, this complexity does not diminish our responsibility toward virtue. His mother’s problems, familial stresses, and abusive childhood are all complex issues. However, he breaks the cycle by becoming a better man. Sure, his improvement does not protect all children or retroactively redeem his family. However, J.D.’s embrace of virtue reduces suffering within himself and within those around him. Thus, by breaking the cycle of abuse, J.D. improves the world.
As an individual, you can become an outlier and end the cycle of abuse, hardship, and horror, which may have plagued your family. You don’t have to be a paragon of virtue. Simply refuse to replicate the abuses you suffered. Then, focus on becoming as virtuous as you can.
If you need inspiration for overcoming brokenness, then read J.D.’s book. You’ll learn, grow, and become a stronger individual.
- How was your childhood? Do you have regrets? Are there things you would have done differently?
- What is way you can help others? How do you wish others would help you?
- Have you’ve ever considered yourself a victim? Why?
- Have others considered you a victim? How did they treat you? Furthermore, how did you feel about being a victim?
- If you haven’t already, I suggest reading Hillbilly Elegy. If you have read the book, what did you think of it? What did you learn from the book?
Please remember that it’s important to do the actionables. You’re not on this earth to simply read but to do. To become an individual, you must act more than you consume.
*Image credit to Unsplash.