My father worked in construction for over twenty years, only getting his first full time job after I had already left for college. Before that it was always one job to the next, always hoping that the big businesses would respect the unions instead of hiring illegal Cuban workers under wretched working conditions. He never got sick leave or vacation. He had to use a porta potty every day. There was no cooler on site and he had to carry all his tools in and out every day for fear they would be stolen. Often the workers were not given parking spaces near their job sites, which made things even more difficult.
Today, I live in Japan and I am dating a construction worker — apparently I am my mother’s daughter. A happy man, he never complains about his working conditions and he’s healthy and strong. I doubt he has even considered seeking an alternative form of employment. All around me there is constant construction. It seems as if the Japanese only sell land and expect new owners to bring their own house with them so that my neighborhood in eight months of living here has yet to see a day where there wasn’t construction on my block. I think every building but my own has been operated on by now. The people that I see working seem focused and calm. They take their afternoon breaks in the shade of the neighborhood and the local convenience store provides decent, healthy meals, clean toilets and cold drinks. It does not seem a bad life at all, though perhaps physically tiring.
So it occurred to me that my father’s miserable career did not have to be that way. It could be that construction workers are treated with respect as proper members of society. It could be that we don’t try to provide them the barest basics at the least cost to ourselves, but rather that we provide them what is decent and necessary for a decent man to live a decent life in decent, comfortable conditions.
This realization rides on the back of a tidal wave of knowledge crashed down on me by my exposure to the book Sex At Dawn. A complete volume purportedly on human sexuality, it is actually a treatise on the capacity and even intrinsic craving of humans to provide and experience compassion. Every day we see the capitalist dogma of selfishness and competition and we think to ourselves that this is the only we that we can be. We see all around us the failure of human altruism and we say that nothing can be done because this is the way we are, but this is not the way we are.
We are compassionate, social, affectionate creatures who have been forced into a world that preys upon our fears of betrayal. Rather than nurture our need for companionship, we are taught to fortify ourselves against loneliness and isolation. We look around and we see citadels of greed all designed to protect the human inside from isolation that doesn’t have to be. If our world was one in which we were taught that our fellow humans would care for us, we would not need to fortify, protect, horde, negotiate, lend, inherit… if we could only drop the assumption that this is the way the world has to work, we would be able to finally see the injustice that we reign down upon ourselves. Injustice like treating critical members of our society like trash simply because “competition” says that if they were worth more that they would have had enough money to provide better for themselves.
This idea that man can be measured in dollars is sickening. We are forced to conclude that women are not as valuable as men because we make less money. Blacks are less valuable than whites because they make less money. South American countries are less sovereign than North because they have less money. Human value just is. You cannot measure it, and you don’t have to. It is possible to live in a better world than the one we live in. All it takes is a realization that it doesn’t have to be this way.