On our Socrates Cafe page on Facebook, you’ll see yours truly presiding over a philosophical inquiry with a group of indigenous children in Chiapas, Mexico. My wife and I lived for years in the gorgeous insular San Cristobal de las Casas, which at the time was a winding two hour drive from the nearest airport. I fell in love with the intimate city as soon as I first visited there in 2000 with Ceci, who, before we met and married, had been a teacher in an indigenous community in Chiapas state, and learned a Mayan tongue, Tzeltal.
Whenever Ceci had some free time, she’d make the tortuous trek to San Cristobal, a diamond of a city. The local population includes a considerable number of German, many of whom have lived here for decades on end (unlike most other places I’ve been in Mexico, many of the signs are in German and Spanish rather than English and Spanish), an ever-changing bohemian contigent, and is surrounded by indigenous groups, many of whom live in their own communities, or ejidos — and many thousands who don’t, who have been ejected from their communities because of religious or political differences. Untold numbers live around San Cristobal proper, in what by U.S. standards would be considered conditions of extreme poverty.
If you look at the photo to which I’m referring, and also have included here, the second person from the left, captured in partial profile, is a slender girl, Veruch, who at the time was 11. She and her mom, Maruch, and 6 year old brother Mario had become close with my wife and I over the years. Veruch taught me a number of words in her Mayan dialect, Tzotzil, About once a week, in a time of day when there was a lull in tourist traffic, she’d round up a goodly number of indigenous children. Hundreds of Tzotzil school-age youth spend each and every day, 10 to 14 hours, selling beautiful handwoven bracelets, belts, shawls, that they make after their formal workday is over, or that their parents have made. While the Constitution of Mexico guarantees a high quality education for all its nation’s children, that is a pipe dream for those who live in poverty. But I’ve found repeatedly, in the many dialogues I’ve held with Mexico’s street children, and with the indigenous children of Chiapas, that they have stores of wisdom borne from their singular experiences that expand and enrich my horizons — and was in telling respects the genesis of my The Philosophy of Childing.
At the Socrates Cafe photographed here, the question we initially explored was, “What is a good human being?” (kind of a derivation of Socrates’ question on human good). Typically, in the Western world, when I throw out this question, participants launch right it. But here, I was stopped in my tracks (as I was, and as I related in my Six Questions of Socrates, when I posed Socrates’ original question, “What is justice?”, and was enlightened by the indigenous community in Chiapas with which I engaged that they had no concept for justice, because in their ejido, since everyone has an equal role and equal input in decision-making, everyone feels that life is just, and so they’ve never developed the concept of injustice — though of course they are tragically aware of the Spanish term injusticia, since they have been for centuries victims of the most vicious injustices at the hands of the corrupt and racist Mexican political system).
So, Veruch turned my “What is a good human being?” question into, “What is a human being?” and “What is a true human being?” She instructed me that in the Mayan belief system, you are born into the world as a human being, but to become a true human being, you have to demonstrate certain acts of goodness. For instance, she said, by her conception, a true human being is someone whom, when she tries to sell them one of her hand-wrought goods, at least replies to her, “No, thank you.”
She went on to say to me, with nods all around from the other children and youth participating, that far more often than not, the adults – tourists and locals alike — whom she encounters walk past her without so much as recognizing her existence, and that many even intentionally try to elbow her aside (she has been forcefully pushed to the ground on far too many occasions). But when they at least say “No thank you,” she tells me in her fashion, they are recognizing her as a fellow human being, recognizing her humanity, are showing goodness, kindness, and hence are showing their ‘trueness,’ their faithfulness, to what it’s all about when it comes to being a true human being. She laments that all too many she encounters couldn’t care less about achieving the exalted status of being a true human being, and that she feel sorry for them. They may, by her standards, have all the material riches in the world, yet have not a clue about what’s really important in life.
These children with whom I engaged regularly in Socrates Cafe are now adults, and now I’m sure many are instructing their own children in what really matters — they instruct by example, showing them how important it is to share what little you have whenever you can with others. Whenever I gave anything to the children — money, food, what have you — they not only immediately shared it with the rest of their family or friends, but also went out of their way to share with me. Popcorn, for instance, one of their favorite treats .Whenever Veruch had sold enough to buy a bag for herself and her family, she also would scout me out and offer me some. How could I refuse?
If only all of us adults were blessed to have philosophical exchanges with children like Veruch — and if only all of us would open our hearts and minds, and eyes, to them, maybe, just maybe, we’d slowly but surely be on our own paths towards ‘true human being-ness.’