Let’s begin with a story. My end-of-year work party probably looked a bit different from yours. Whereas most North Americans are used to placing financial success at the fore of their work, I don’t make much money at my primary place of employment here: none of the main staff does. (It is, however, my life-line for a visa!) And so, our work “party” instead involved… a speech from the boss. About values. About our need to be thankful for being in the tiny percentage of Colombians that makes more than 1200000COP a month (around $355USD). About not being in the 40% living under the poverty line.
The speech focussed instead on… the other values that matter in life. About working to making a difference, working to be part of something positive, working to be part of a community. About making time for family and friends. About learning to enjoy the small moments of difficult and demoralizing days.
Now, North Americans would by and large bristle at rhetoric such as this, and especially at the audacity of one’s employer trying to tell you how to live and what to value in your life. “Enough with this other-values bullshit,” one of my US friends put it: “You know your worth. Ask them to Pay! You! More!”
And it was, indeed, jarring for this Canadian to hear that speech–especially since I had, personally, just received some distressing news about the future of my client base for when I return to work in January. But when I looked around that room, I was reminded how normal such things are in Colombia. I remembered how common values-speeches are at family get-togethers, and I saw the normalcy of it all, too, in how much the local staff nodded along and enthusiastically participated on this specific occasion. They shared what “small moments of joy” looked like to them. They shared the private dreams that kept them going even when the economic situation was not all that they could hope for. And they seemed relaxed in all of it.
All the while, I was feeling lower and lower–because I didn’t have time for the sort of small moments they were sharing, and I didn’t have time to make “friends” outside of my classes, and I didn’t have family here to turn to (although that had also been a strong part of why I moved: even my family in Canada was always “too busy,” such that making plans to see them was an arduous affair). And then, hilariously enough, my end-of-term “award” was a description that called me, among other things, “always happy.” I think I laughed through the tears springing to my wee isolated-immigrant eyes at that last.
But that’s the kind of tension, the kind of frustrating hypocrisy, I want to address today.
Because, well… I might not have had the greatest work year. And quite a few other things aren’t going so well for me right now. But I’m also in the middle of a work break that leaves me time to finish my novel–what an incredible privilege! What a joy!
And yet, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that I’m still fixating on what I don’t have.
Which… I have to admit, leaves me feeling as though, even after so much direct exposure to another social contract, I’m still living my humanism “wrong”.
Quejas, Siempre Quejas
If you recall, after all, in Colombia when someone says “¿Cómo estás?” the answer is almost automatically “Bien, gracias [a Dios], y tú?” This foregrounding of gratitude is a far cry from the Canadian routine of complaints that more frequently has us answer “How’re you?” with “Busy, so busy!” or “Tired, so tired!”
But this isn’t a slight against individual Canadians. We’re answering logically, under our circumstances. We’re performing constant industriousness, by and large, because that’s how the game is played. Don’t act as if it’s not a meritocracy–that’s sour grapes talking. Just do your time, keep your head down and keep working, and eventually you’ll prove that you deserve what you have and what you’re aspiring to achieve.
This logic, of course, caused me immense distress when I worked in places frequented by upper-middle class clientele, who seemed baffled by how hard a time I was finding it simply to exist: working three jobs, working all the time, and never seeming to find access to financial stability through any of those positions. Some of the misguided kept probing to try to figure out why I couldn’t get this stability they took for granted; what was wrong with me, what was I failing to do to earn my way to a better life?
I have always been a touch nutso, of course, but boy howdy did that relentless reframing of systemic issues to fixate on me, personally, do a number on me. It’s not, of course, that individuals are without agency… but when you live in a society that places total agency on you, when not everyone has the same cushion of familial stability and financial safety on which to fall if one takes risks… you’re as good as being told you’re a failure to the core.
Conversely, here in Colombia, society is ordered far more like the by-one’s-bootstraps libertarianism that many North Americans tediously extol. And a lot of people here are very, very poor because of it.
But what this libertarianism has, which North Americans by and large do not… is honesty about the classist limitations to their striving. Even when everyone knows they can only rely on themselves and maybe their families; and even when everyone knows they have to hustle to get by because everyone has to hustle to get by… a great many Colombians also seem to know full well they’re hustling in an unfair system that siphons off most wealth to a very select few.
So, everyone hustles. Everyone tries to make for themselves a better life. But no one interrogates a street vendor or tienda owner as to why they aren’t doing [X], [Y], or [Z] to “merit” some supposedly readily accessible path to greater class stability.
Bringing my Canadianisms with Me
Now, though–closing in on two years in my new home–my biggest issue is not “living in a society where I’m relentlessly interrogated for my ‘choice’ not to be more of a socioeconomic success.”
My biggest issue is… me. And the Canadianisms I bring with me, to a culture with a different approach to life’s core values.
Specifically: I still complain. I still grouse. I still have a difficult time finding happiness in what I have. I still get so angry over what I’ve lost.
And I still feel like a failure, for ever so many reasons in my life.
Recently, though, I reached a breaking point with all this pain, and decided to set up an informal processing space for myself: a private filter populated by a range of people in my life who offered their eyeballs for whatever I needed to say. My aim was to air out my shame in a way that many isolated Canadians I feel never do–in part, I suspect, because of how much we’re busy performing class striving. I set a syllabus for myself, and I started writing about things I had kept very, very close to my heart for so long because I was convinced that they made me lesser, and a failure.
And… yes, how strange it is to write about that process here, I know, when quite a few readers seem to think I’m trying to set unreasonable standards for humanists everywhere. I’m really not. I just want us to have more conversations about the struggle itself–to be a better humanist, on the good days; to just be a better human, on the bad.
Comments on this private filter were by no means necessary, but also incredibly touching when they emerged. They were also anthropologically informative–because some took the time to try to reassure me in relation to what they felt my biggest fears really were. This led me to realize how completely skewed my actual fears were, when what had scared me most (ostracization-wise) hadn’t even registered for those reading my online talk therapy. Others gave comments trying to reassure me in relation to what they thought my ultimate goals might be, going forward–which was a fascinating reminder, too, of how different many of my long-term plans are from the status quo.
One comment in particular struck me, though, because it explicitly suggested that I was seeking sainthood. And when I read that, I had to laugh–because I recognize the charge from comments received over my past year at Patheos. The insufferably high standards of moral rectitude in some of my essays. The seemingly imperative tone even when talking just about my personal experiences and what conclusions I’ve drawn from them.
Now, I’m not saying that these criticisms have been entirely without merit. Learning to write effectively here has… taken quite a bit of time, I know–and I’m still improving.
But sainthood, I would argue, is about moving towards something. And I now suspect that, like many Canadians operating in class precarity with a poverty mentality, the majority of my life has been spent on quite the opposite. On fear, to be precise: Fear of abandonment. Fear of poverty. Fear of not deserving stability and a sense of belonging. Fear of not being good enough.
When Is Anyone Ever Good Enough?
This, then, is the challenge I’ll be taking with me into the next few weeks, as I focus on trying to finish my novel during the precious slice of free time I have before my visa-related work schedule begins anew. My “holiday” season is over, and in the solitude that lies before me I have a great deal of reflecting to do with regards to how I make decisions for myself. How often am I moving toward something? How often are my decisions instead motivated by fear, anger, despair, and shame?
And above all else, now that I live in a culture that truly gives me space not to feel like a failure for not being able to “merit” socioeconomic or related social stability…
When is it going to be enough?
For any of us?
Whatever your own social contract, whatever your own pressures to perform… when’s the last time you were able to say to yourself, This is enough. I’m enough, and really mean it?
Maybe I am a bit of a failure at being a humanist. Maybe there’s a core hypocrisy in my exhortations here for everyone to try to be a bit kinder, a bit less binary in their thinking, and a bit more cautious about the easy tribalism of so much in the world.
But that’s the difference between saintliness and something real, isn’t it?
Because, at the end of the day, it’s just us humans here, rooting around for grace amid both the wonders and the pure muck of existence. And finding it–if we’re lucky, if we’re really lucky–only in what we’re ready to forgive… in each other, and ourselves.