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Happy days

I was walking down the street a couple of days ago and saw a line of people queuing outside a building waiting to attend a workshop. The event was free, so I joined the crowd. 

The workshop was about “empowerment and self-improvement”, and the group enthusiastically gathered to listen to a speaker who urged them to trust their inner strength and believe in their ability to strive, achieve and succeed. In the second part of the talk, different people told personal stories about how, by changing their minds, they achieved goals that had seemed impossible before. The stories had dramatic and emotional twists that led the audience to applaud enthusiastically after hearing how, after much effort, the speakers had been able to overcome endless and overwhelming difficulties. 

At the end of the workshop, some people commented how good they had felt listening to these real stories. But, as I walked towards the exit, I wondered: What was the reality that these stories were made of? 

These stories were sad and had happened to ordinary people. Still, the speakers had given them an appearance of fantasy and glamour to emphasize the dream of personal achievement despite the adversities one faces. Why was this an alluring fantasy? Because very rarely, social conditions such as poverty, inequality, gender or race are set aside to give someone access towards the pinnacle of success.

On the contrary, these conditions are obstacles even to achieving minimal freedoms in many third-world countries. But even in Europe, race, nationality and gender are recurring determinants of the success and flourishing that citizens can attain, against everything one could expect from that part of the world.

We take much longer to rebel against the social injustices that affect us collectively than we do to focus on those that affect us individually. We are more inclined to solve our work problems by trying harder than to declare the shared conditions of exploitation suffered by workers in our work and beyond. So we are compelled to face unfair environments assuming and solving the effects of global problems individually. We accept the order given as children who do not choose their parents, the family, or the neighbourhood where they grow up. We learn to accept our fate while still feeling an impulse toward rebellion.

And this impulse for the individual revolution leads people to look for something more in this rhetoric of self-help: a possibility to change what does not seem fair to them. Stop being a leaf in the wind of social conditioning and take control of their lives. And here is the seductive risk of the self-help and “feeling good” industry. Believing that one can solve their limitations is not the same as facing the social consequences of social inequality, racism, gender gaps or the absence of the State.

Is it fair that a person assumes the responsibility and task of overcoming the systemic injustices that have led them to marginalization, poverty, discrimination, or racism only by working on improving themselves and trying harder? Is it fair that people are judged for their efforts to overcome social injustices individually? Why do the poor and marginalized always end up being those to blame for their situation? Why is it so easy to give in to the temptation of blaming people’s situations for their failures? Perhaps the answer is that the world around us has become so chaotic that they want us to believe that the only thing one can control is their mindset, moods, inner strength, inner teacher, the inner child, the Chi. , etc., call it what you want. 

The responsibility of making our environment and the social world less chaotic and less destructive is a task that depends on all of us. This collective task cannot rely on looking inwards as a way to ignore social injustices but on the effort to leave behind the rhetoric of individualistic self-help and build a better future for all by working together.

Photo Sebastian silva







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