THERE ARE A FEW WAYS to be destroyed by a corrupt culture. One is to be snuffed out by the ongoing injustice. And another is to rise by employing that same injustice.
I WAS THINKING about how we are so many parts. Using words the teachers gave us, ones we invent, some that get created by relationships with others and nobody else understands. Coined words, Slang words, Caló, Cholo, English, Black Vernacular, French, Japanese, Chinese, German. Wearing clothes of various cut, crafted by chafed and worn hands we often never hold. Practicing traditions handed down by our ancestors, different ancestors, from different places. Eating foods from all ends of the Earth. Acting out what our parents have modeled, and at times purposely practicing the opposite. Body postures shaped by exercise, pain, injury, inner strength, inner turmoil, or habit.
We are a hybrid happening. It is a shape taken naturally by humans as we learn and mimic and others mimic what we happen to invent; as we open our minds and lives to new ways. We do draw limits. I suppose if we simply floated aimlessly and amalgamated everything that came into our way, we would soon return to the spattered pattern of the rain, to the whim of the wind. Though to me, this is fine, too. I like that idea, that feel. It is exhausting to exert control all the time.
And then, there are those shapes reified by observance and repetition. Tradition and heritage are about creating a shape that persists, a shape formed by meaning. It is putting our hands in the clay, and shaping, day after day after day.
I laughed at myself the other day after “haggling” with a guy who bought my best videocamera. He was getting a better deal than I’d asked, but time was running out. He would be getting a collection of camera, lenses, batteries etc—all in near new condition—that originally cost me over double what he first offered, and finally paid. He didn’t want to budge an inch to meet my original price. I told him what my situation was: about to drown under all the bills, responsible for other people, desperate for cash.
Most people know better than to advertise your great need for cash in such a situation. Instinctively, we understand that in this predatory, capitalist, culture, such honesty invites people to exploit your need. I don’t mind acting at times, but pretense is not comfortable to me. I am who I am.
I attempted to help him understand what a great bargain he would be getting even (hypothetically) by meeting my highest price and again, reminded him of my situation. He didn’t want to meet me at all in price; not halfway, not an extra $100, even. I had no time left to look for better deals, so I left it in his hands, saying simply “I told you my situation. You go ahead and do what you feel is right to do, here. If you want to not budge and feel that is the right way to be here, you go ahead.”
There are a few ways to be beaten down by a corrupt culture. One is to be snuffed out by the injustice. Things are stacked against you, and chances are if you don’t adapt and get sly, it will crush you. Of course, it may crush you even if you do adapt. So that’s a gamble all on its own.
But the sure other way to be beaten down is to get sly. To get too sly. For too long. To mistake your manipulating of others’ need for some kind of personal victory. To lose your heart to the greed that will, before much longer, finish off our species. You have not won, but only demonstrated that the sick world around you has led you by the hand into corruption. And time and time again, I choose to hand people their own conscience. I let them show me and the world who they are. If they choose to stick me in the gut when I reveal my belly, I let them carry that wound.
I am not advising martyrdom. Don’t get me wrong. There is no real reward I am aware of that will be yours by turning a cheek. It’s not as if one day they will suddenly realize their shallow cruelty or selfishness. And if they do, it’s not as if you will ever know. Don’t count on any of that. The world will grind you down and never think twice. The flowers that grow on your grave care nothing for your ethics. They will bloom nonetheless.
I know this. I make my choice knowing this.
The reason I laughed, later, was because it (all at once) seemed so Jewish to do. My mother and my nana on her side were like this, I realized. If you know what I mean, then you know. This sighing over ethical choices that can seem like ‘guilt trip.’ Not the loving fury that my abuela would employ, when pressed to correct. (I do this, too.) More of a handing a choice over to you and asking you to consult your own conscience.
To this day, I choose this method—unless we are talking about being attacked. (Then, I respond with other flavors from my past.) And very often, yes, people take advantage when I do. And maybe they feel scot-free, like they are winning, when they exploit others and enrich themselves. I do not, so I can not. No, I feel as if no matter what I gain through that, the treasure is tainted. And no matter the final numbers, this feels like a very bad bargain to make.