I am writing at the end of another economically turbulent week where we have seen the US Government drop It’s investigation into Goldman Sachs for basically betting (by taking opposite positions) against their own clients and the positions they have placed on their behalf. It truly justifies the sentiment we have towards financial institutions, banks and Governments.
Coincidentally I have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The famous novel was set and written in the Great Depression. Steinbeck’s little book caused quite a stir when it was released because he was very critical of the greed and apathy that characterised and dominated modern life. In contrast to the colourful characters of his other works, where even the villains have an innocent lovability about them, he is scathing in his criticism of banks, industry and most of all the apathy of the human beings that make-up these institutions.
Although we might be more circumspect today, complaining about industrialisation and the loss of the farming lifestyle – one issue he raises is a problem that still resonates loudly today: apathy. I would like to share with you some parts of Chapter 5 that really moved me. The following passages concern a conversation between a tenant being evicted from his farm with a bank representative, and later with the tractor driver who is now ploughing the bank-owned fields.
Dealing with difficult decisions
“Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company— needs—wants—insists—must have—(as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them). These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.”
We all feel like these owners sometimes. Inevitably in professional life we have to make tough decisions that affect others. In tough financial times there is more of this than ever with evictions, redundancies and liquidations. Sometimes we have very little choice in how we treat people – these are often the easiest decisions because we can hide behind necessity or the authority of others: ‘just following orders’.
Other times we have flexibility in how we address a situation. We can make the world a brighter place and come up with more creative and fruitful solutions by being mindful of the humanity of others regardless of which side of the fence we sit on – whether we are ‘farmers’ or ‘owners’. By treating others with respect and remembering that they are a person not a problem, you are able to better resolve these difficult situations.
Hiding Behind Bureaucracy
“It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.
“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”
“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.”
“Yes, but the bank is only made of men.”
So often we come across the bureaucrats (real ones at the council, or our friends in call-centres) who won’t budge an inch to help you out. People in ‘customer service’ who have become so fixated on the rules that they have lost the ability to serve customers effectively. Treating customers as people and not numbers is one of the few things that large companies do poorly and that small companies can excel at. The thing that strikes me about this passage is that the evicting bank representative does not take responsibility for the actions he is taking. He might be right, but like then tenant says – the bank is made of people like him. How is it that we end up doing bad things together that we wouldn’t do alone? If we took responsibility for, and made more effort to be aware of the wider implications of our actions perhaps we could avoid the harm that this kind of detachment can cause.
Apathy and the Big Picture
“No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’II lose my job if I don’t do it. And look—suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.
“That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”
“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’ “
“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”
The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’ “
“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.
“I got to figure,” the tenant said. “We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”
This is the point I most wanted to make. So many of the world’s problems today: economic, environmental and social could be solved if people weren’t so apathetic and detached from one another. We know that we each bear a small part of a group responsibility.
So let’s decide! At least on an individual level, to check our actions and make sure that we replace APATHY with EMPATHY. That we also celebrate when someone does the same for us. Maybe with our own small ripple that we created, we will have the power to make that ripple grow until it encompasses the universe and we can REACH our final destination of true NIRVANA.
With all my love to you,