Human Beings not Human Doings:
Seeking Equality Not in What We Do, But in Who We Are
– by Nicole Schnackenberg
“The secret to human freedom is to act well, without attachment to the results”
The importance of productivity is one of the most pervasive myths of modern times. Rapid
advances in technology have created a scenario in which we can produce more with a
reduced number of inputs. Fewer people are required in many areas of industry, yet the
population continues to grow. Consequentially, an emerging cultural narrative in the West
is that we must have something special to offer if we are to survive. Many of us have
learnt that we require the ability to produce above and beyond others in order to have a
tenable position in society and in the world.
These beliefs may have their roots in childhood, when perhaps we were applauded for our
behaviours above our underlying values and attitudes. Indeed, Western school systems
overwhelmingly esteem and reward children based on what they produce, not on the kind
of person they are.
We may profess to be an ‘advanced society’ and yet we continue to collectively marginalise
and largely ignore the worth of refugees, people with learning disabilities, people with
mental health problems, the homeless, people with addictions, the elderly and many other
groups. This marginalisation is clearly based on fear which, in part, appears to spring from
the myth that productivity=esteem=worth=love.
People who cannot work, for whatever reason, often find themselves on the very edges of
society. Given that we have more 100,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK,
that the population of elderly people is growing rapidly, that mental health problems are on
the increase along with homelessness and addictions, we have to ask ourselves where all of
these people are. Many of them are hidden away in institutions with poorly paid staff and
little psychosocial support. The reality is that the continued and pervasive mentality in much
of the Western world is that people who cannot work for whatever reason are ‘less’ than
those of us who engage in materialistic and consumeristic mentalities and ways of life.
Aristotle identified three types of friendship; ‘a friendship of use’ only lasts as long as we
need the other person, ‘a friendship of pleasure’ lasts as long as we enjoy the other and ‘a
friendship of virtue’ depends on people seeing virtue in one another, on viewing the other
as an equal.
Any friendship of the first two kinds is based on a power imbalance. Any philanthropic work
also comes with this risk. Do we offer support to the other in order to become the rescuer
and thus to gain power? Or do we offer such support in order to honour the other’s virtue
and both experience and promote the equality between us?
The friendship of virtue to which Aristotle points is that of an equal playing field. I see and
embrace the value of you as a person and you see and embrace my value also. Philosopher
Jean Vanier argued that peace is only possible when we fully understand the value of
those on the margins of society. This is epitomised by ceasing to view those on society’s
margins as needing to be hidden away or helped. Instead, we move towards an
understanding of all people as having equal worth and value to our own.
Here at Ourmala, we walk alongside people who have been classified as refugees and
asylum seekers, many of whom have subsequently been significantly marginalised by
society. Each and every person has unique gifts and something beautiful to offer the
world; this has nothing to do with productivity and everything to do with the intrinsic worth
and connectedness of us all.