by Catalina Restrepo
Have you ever felt that, however much effort you’ve put into something, you can’t seem to reach your goals; or, seen others reach theirs in little time or with minimal effort, if any? Do you find it unjust or indignant that someone else, who didn’t break a sweat as much as you did, or didn’t work overtime, somehow obtained that which you wanted in the first place?
Well, I invite you to read, more than a critical stance, this reflection which has been circulating my mind lately, specially during election times; every time I read art critics whom opportunistically, and without any in depth research, look for followers at the expense of others. Furthermore, when I hear opinions that stem from pure ignorance and are filtered through the algorithms of social media.
I believe that the premise which assumes that in order to achieve something, one must have to make a lot of effort is a big lie. It makes us malleable, predisposed to misinformation, and mediocrity. I don’t believe there’s anything falser than that. This way of looking at things leads us to think that:
He/She who strives gets what he wants and therefore deserves it,
He/She who gets what I want without effort, does not deserve it.
Therefore, it is fair that I claim, criticize, steal or demean what the other got without deserving 1.
Furthermore, I don’t believe it’s the amount of hours, pain, sacrifice, or physical drain which makes someone deserving. I believe it’s strategy, intelligence, skill, and the recursion one applies towards what they propose for themselves…and yes, also perseverance towards what one wants, that makes the challenge of achievement feel less like an effort but rather something exciting to follow through with.
"I believe it’s strategy, intelligence, skill, and the recursion one applies towards what they propose for themselves…and yes, also perseverance towards what one wants..."
So then, where is the merit? Who deserves retribution? In a metaphor about a man who visits his mechanic, he and asks him, “Why have you charged me so much if all it took was tightening a screw?” And the mechanic answers: “You’re paying me, not to tighten a screw, but rather for knowing which screw to tighten;” the answer is clear. What makes the mechanic worthy of being payed for? For knowing which screw to adjust, or for the amount of hours it took to solve the problem, even if he weren’t able to fix the car.
The problem comes when the “deserving of something” is translated into money; it becomes a political issue, of manipulation, and power. Left wing and right, lack of education, social decomposition and above all, poverty…a mental one.
I don’t believe money to be the defining marker of a good and dignified quality of life. There are those whom with great wealth live with high levels of stress. There’s the case of the millionaire who, in order to pay for his luxuries, must work nonstop. Delinquents who live under constant threat and find themselves living in the shadows for most of their lives. As is in the case the infamous couple, Karime Macias and the former governor of the state of Veracruz, Javier Duarte. Two clear examples of the mental poverty I describe in this text.
When their warehouses were discovered to be crammed with luxury purchases, (after years of stealing from public funds—including the case wherein they were found guilty of treating children suffering from cancer with watered down chemotherapy), a notebook containing Karime’s notes was recovered which repeatedly stated the phrase, “yes, I deserve abundance.” This obsessive gesture only goes to show how she required self reindoctrination to convince herself that she in fact deserved this kind of abundance regardless of how useless all those commandeered luxuries and possessions were to her.
By contrast, there are those who, with little money, manage to lead calm, dignified lives. Whether it’s working in the fields as a farmer would; living in sustainable homes, or even having the ability to travel without any major concerns, there are many options. With this, I want to say that, to me, wealth and poverty are relative concepts which, as long as they continue to be understood by the rhetoric of leftists or rightists, which is to say in terms of the abundance or lack of money rather than dignity and quality of life, we will remain stuck in a third world state.
However, I believe much of this has to do with education. Antonio Escohotado Espinosa, Spanish thinker and philosopher, said during an interview “A country is not rich because it has diamonds or oil. A country is rich because it has education. Education means that, even though you can steal, you don’t. Education means that while you are walking down the street and the sidewalk narrows, you get out of the way and say, ‘go ahead’. Education means that when you are handed a bill at a store or restaurant, you say, ‘thank you’, and when you receive your change, you leave a tip and say ‘thank you’ once more. When a community has that, when a community has education, a community is rich. Therefore, without a doubt, richness is knowledge. Above all, a knowledge that allows for the unlimited respect towards others.” 2
The problem here is that we’ve been dragging along a cultural baggage which can’t be eradicated overnight. The formula for information, or education, leading towards an honest, compassionate, or productive consciousness, is not perfect. Education, not the one people receive at schools (let alone government funded ones), rather the one Escohotado Espinosa is referring to, is necessary in order for people of all walks of life to have the ability to turn their lives around in a virtuous way. The problem is that we’ve been living centuries without it. Yes, much of this is due to inattentive governments that have intentionally neglected education; but also due to the families which have contributed to the fostering of competition before respect.
"Education... is necessary in order for people of all walks of life to have the ability to turn their lives around in a virtuous way."
With this, I’d like to argue that education isn’t a guarantee. Good people do not commit dishonest acts, even if they may have lacked any formal education or money. In the same sense, bad people, even with formal and higher education, will inevitably commit crimes or bad acts. The real problem lies in that, if many people haven’t received any education, one cannot be quick to judge. There exists a high probability of short sightedness to the consequences of their actions.
There are (or, we are) many who live in these poor countries. Where to begin? I know that there are those who must have an up-close encounter of an example: someone or some experience that could sensitize them. And then there are others who simply haven’t had the slightest opportunity to reflect upon their reality beyond the environment they grew up in.
HUMAN DIGNITY AND QUALITY OF LIFE
Moreover, as long as conditions of freedom are in place, quality of life and a life lived in dignity are, to a certain extent, under our control as much as any of their derivatives like comfort; cleanliness, health, safety, tranquility, beauty/aesthetics, and education. But it’s rare that this be perceived as such.
Yes, we are wallowed in a corrupt and unequal system, is undeniable. However, there are things that lie in the hands of people in community that could dramatically change the way they live without the need of governmental intervention.
"However, there are things that lie in the hands of people in community that could dramatically change the way they live without the need of governmental intervention."
Health, for example. Nutritional awareness, careful food preparation, and regular exercise can prevent a handful of diseases and give you a healthier body. Being organized; procuring to maintain a healthy and beautiful space with plants that help the quality of air and avoiding the accumulation of objects. In regards to safety (which is sure enough that hardest as it requires a radical immediate change in the collective conscience and set values) it would be ideal that every community member understood that it’s not just about who breaks into a home or who mugs and assaults in the streets that contributes to lack of safety, but he/she who buys a stolen phone, who taps into their neighbor’s electricity, who buys stolen gas, etc. If there were a pact made and members would agree towards maintaining an environment free of violence, there would be safety. Easy to say.
Cleanliness is not something dependent on money, rather on an individual disposition and a community effort towards preserving spaces. In a restaurant, for example, a meal served in a clean plate is perceived as more expensive than one served in a dirty plate, even though they may cost the same. Same goes for a convenience shop, like a 7-Eleven, versus a bodega; the issue is cleanliness. It’s not that customers prefer to buy in a 7-Eleven, rather I believe they prefer to buy their food in a place where minimum hygiene standards are maintained 3.
But it’s strange to realize that when one talks about nice stores, or at least clean ones, it comes off as superficial and can easily be misinterpreted as a defense for gentrification or something when it’s simply a comment about having dignified spaces. What were to happen if the residents of these neighborhoods designed their shops and streets; if they maintained them clean and pleasing for themselves? I’m sure they would be able to keep their low prices. Instead of giving up their spaces to external investors whose goal is to improve them in order to high their prices. It would be ideal that they should do this, not for money, but for a better quality of life; so they can live in nicer neighborhoods they truly like, because they deserve it. Beyond just a nicer environment, that they can find their own style that makes them proud and exalts their identity. It seems like a superficial reflection, as if the problem would be solved by a quick change in the facade, but it’s these details that have an impact from within.
At first glance, this would seem to be a rich neighborhood or poor neighborhood point of difference. But if this isn’t about money, then what would happen if those from a poor neighborhood decided to not dump their trash in the street but rather came to an agreement to regularly clean as a group? Their quality of life would vastly improve. Picking up trash is something that can be done with your hands and doesn’t require money. The only thing is to have respect for your neighbor and understand public places as communal spaces to be taken care of. This happened in a neighborhood of Bogotá.
On November 6th, the Colombian newspaper, El Espectador, published that the neighborhood “El Regalo,” in the town of Bosa, to the west of the city, had won the title of The Cleanest Neighborhood in Latin America 4. Ten years ago, twenty-two social leaders lead this project in their community. They recycle, grow food in urban gardens, developed programs to help the elderly, and work to keep the streets clean. They didn’t need economic resources to improve their environment and feel proud for having achieved it. I want to believe that for people who live there daily, in presence of such an example, it becomes difficult to turn their course towards negative behaviors. Now, I don’t believe that such an impact could have been achieved with a campaign imposed by the government. The area would probably not have been clean for even a single day.
Equally important, I also understand that the biggest problem within the lower social strata is that cleaning the street or planting plants may be the last of their concerns; there are thousands of more urgent problems. It is a trait and vicious cycle that takes part in the social decomposition and extreme poverty of which most Latin American countries are mired in.
HUMAN POTENTIAL WASTED—WORK
Returning to the theme of merit measured in effort, I can identify aspects of labor that paint a complicated panorama, as well.
I consider that working in an office which requires from you certain amount of work hours is a dehumanizing but accepted, normalized, and systemized practice. It’s one that has been going through a transition in developed countries, but one that we are a long way away.
It’s incredible to think about that fact that, even with all the technological advancements and various forms of communication, the office worker must still clock out at 7pm when they’ve finished their work at 2pm. It’s seems like it’s irrelevant to the business if they stay all those hours wasting time (time they wish could be spent at home resting, with family, working on personal projects or even hobbies), as long as they appear to be making an effort and staying until 7pm. With this logic, he or she who gives more effort is who deserves a salary, not the person who’s done a better job. Moreover, effort is also understood as sacrifice of time, even liberty, because leaving the office during work hours would then be fireable offence.
For a third world business it is important to dehumanize and reduce the quality of life of its employee in order to guarantee their stay; maybe because pitting effort against merit is what has always been done and so far it’s worked. The archaic notion of the honorable “making a living with the sweat of one’s forehead,” still persists, however absurd this logic may seem.
What reason could there possibly be behind a system which at first glance supposes an excessive waste of resources? 5. In purely economic terms, at least, a business will spend more on electricity and services during lost time when; employees no longer have anything to do while they wait to leave work; when they have to invest in training employees due to constant employee turnover (because less and less people, particularly young people, can handle that kind of work rhythm), jeopardizing efficiency since employees prefer to distribute their workload throughout the week rather than finish quicker; when work rhythm also affects employee performance caused by depression; just to name a few examples of the biggest money leaks. The only reason for this I can think of is: out of fear that with free time, the employee will realize what they are missing out on and won’t want to return to work. In the first world, things are different. The employee would return to their job and would fulfill their duties because his work is recognized; he or she is dignified. This has much more meaning than money.
Going to another extreme, something similarly happens in informal street work as it’s common to find people in extreme poverty performing useless jobs in exchange for money in what they consider to be work based on effort. For example, those known as viene-viene or franeleros (informal street car guards) who are in charge of letting drivers stuck in traffic know when to move and when to stop; tapa-huecos (pothole-coverers), as their name implies, ask for money to do said job in a voluntary manner, work which, considering the precarity of the streets of third world countries, would seem like a necessary job if it weren’t the fact that they are the ones who uncover them during the night; or the fakirs in México City’s subway, whom lay on the ground and scrub their backs against broken glass. Its human potential gone to waste. People that with that same resource of time —and in many cases, creativity— could be doing labor that, beyond affording them money, could serve the community in a more meaningful way. They could offer a service, develop a project, tell stories that could leave a mark, innovate, but above all, do something that makes them proud of themselves; that offers them better self-esteem and therefore a better quality of life. In the end, they could have a job that makes them truly dignified.
Although, when I speak of street work, it may seem as if I am referencing work linked to poverty, this is not the case. Firstly, there are studies that show how people that perform these tasks earn between 1,200 and 1,500 US dollars a month 6, much more than the average college professor, nurses, and even more than many museum curators from México City whom I’m acquainted with. Secondly, there is also an abundance of poorly paid jobs that are supremely necessary and dignified. Their impact in society is insurmountable (and hopefully, some day, these will be compensated more fairly). For example; domestic work, maintenance of the sewer system, garbage and recycling collection, electrical work, among others. What I mean to say when I refer to the viene-viene, the tapa-huecos or the fakir as examples of this absurd and dangerous logic of effort in relation to merit, I don’t mean it comparatively in the amount of money or socioeconomic position these individuals hold, rather in the wasting of human potential.
As I’ve mentioned, to me, poverty is not in what others perceive, rather in the manner in which they contribute to society or, even themselves. I am referring to human potential and how this impact self-esteem, dignity, and therefore, quality of life for everyone. I get it! What if all they want is money, but what for? To reach an idealized quality of life with dignity? One that can’t be found in dollar bills? That can’t be bought. That is something that can only be provided (and is exactly what I want to say with this text) from ourselves.
WASTE OF RESOURCES
Another case: When the government allocates a budget for the construction of low income housing, not including the common bribes, what results is the construction of hundreds of thousands of spaces so small and so poorly made, they are uninhabitable. There are many interesting projects from architects and artists that, with the same budget required to build one home, using recycled materials and better planning, create spectacular places that, not only house a family, but offer a better quality of life. Their world is transformed.
Sergio Fajardo, a former politician from Colombia and former mayor of Medellín, stated something that I believe sums up my general point: “In Medellín we have to build beautiful buildings where State presence has been minimum. The first step towards high quality education is the dignity of space. When the poorest child of Medellín arrives to the nicest classroom in the city, we send a powerful message of social inclusion. That child has a renovated sense of self, and can learn math more easily. If we give humble neighborhoods humble but beautiful libraries, those communities will feel proud of themselves. We are saying that that library or that school, with spectacular architecture, will be the most important building in that neighborhood and we are sending a clear message about social transformation. That is our revolution.” 7
"When the poorest child of Medellín arrives to the nicest classroom in the city, we send a powerful message of social inclusion. That child has a renovated sense of self, and can learn math more easily." - Sergio Fajardo
If it costs the same —or less— to do things right, why do we do them wrong? It saddens me, and it makes me lose faith, when I see so many intellectuals, people I admire and care about, defending so passionately either the left or the right (as if Maduro or Bolsonaro were all that different). At least, it’s that very faith I regain when I meet artists with amazing projects and are able to cause change in communities, planting seeds of reflection, giving the necessary tools to see things differently and better their quality of life.
For example, German artists Mike Meiré (1964, Darmstadt, Germany), created a series of installations inspired by the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the city of New Orleans in 2005. After having seen the images displayed by the media, he realized that the hurricane had unintentionally caused a material homologation. One could see a horizon of destruction and all kind of objects wherein all their economic value had been lost. There was the remains of constructions, clothing, trees or cars (even luxury cars), among the devastation. For Meiré, this seemed like the opportunity to transmit an important message: what we human beings should care about, is not the luxuries that we live with, but rather the dignity of the spaces we inhabit and, furthermore, our lives. Taking those ideas as a starting off point, he created several installations that would consequently travel the world and utopically recreate these dignified spaces.
One could easily sleep on a cot on the floor, but if the cot is clean and orderly, the situation changes. The overall life of Meiré’s project took on title of The Farm Project 8, which held onto the idea that a house can be built with economical materials, or recycled ones; but above all, that it should be built with love and the utmost care. The value of things done well, above all else. One could truly perceive the contagious and virtuous environment he built. The moral of the story here is, neither the “rich” necessarily live dignified lives, no matter how luxurious; nor must the “poor” live in filth, neglect, and disorder. Human wellness can be reached through every single nuance of that scale.
If everyone measured their wealth in terms of dignity and standard of living, politicians would have no way of negotiating votes.
If everyone measured their wealth in terms of dignity and standard of living, politicians would have no way of negotiating votes. The biggest brands, corporations, pharmaceuticals, and any other system of power, would have their work cut out for them in any attempt to manipulate people. We would all be less envious and we would live better. Unfortunately, there’s no way; it’s hard to get so many to agree, impossible to corral everyone into higher consciousness so we can stop swallowing everything that is fed to us.
One cannot fix the world, let alone with an essay; but here I lay my thoughts.
QUOTES AND FOOTNOTES
Of course, this is not always the case. There are times when people get what they want without effort, along with an abuse of their privilege and power further obstructing any possibility of growth for those who find themselves in more vulnerable positions. When referring to power, it’s common to first imagine the corrupt politician that steals from public funds. But equally, there’s the assailant with a weapon who steals, kidnaps, and kills. I feel that as a society, common sense fails us here and maybe a failure in understanding the balance between good and evil, values and the abuse of power exists within all of us regardless of our socioeconomic status.
I’m generalizing but it serves to drive an important point home. Of course, there are many nice and clean neighborhood shops, as there are dirty and unkept 7-Eleven shops.
I’m referring to shops where employees are not required to be at their place of work during the full day. This wouldn’t apply to personal service workers or installation supervisors, for example.
The newspaper, El Financiero, published that the wage of a viene-viene varies from 24k to 30k pesos (1,200 to 1,600 USD) monthly.
Sergio Fajardo’s official website http://sergiofajardo.co/
Mike Meiré, The Farm Project: Dornbracht Edges, Walther König, Köln (January 15, 2008) ISBN-10: 3865602932.