Lost Among Europeans

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A cursed capacity for suffering

There’s another Doctor Zhivago quote on my mind these days. “Even Comrade Lenin underestimated both the anguish of that nine hundred mile-long front, and our cursed capacity for suffering.” For a movie I don’t like much, it has left a big footprint. I think I need to read the book.

Returning to Madrid after 11 years abroad, I notice sadly that my compatriots suffer in a very Spanish way that combines pessimism, spinelessness and humor. It’s not just about the economic crisis. It’s workers staying long hours in the office every day. It’s the young and unattached who are still unwilling to leave for a job they don’t hate. It’s the people, allowing massive political corruption, and even voting for the same corrupt parties. It’s that old sense of inevitability taken with pride, as if it were a sign of cleverness.

These are unattractive features, to me at least. And it makes me reflect on how lucky I have been to spend my formative years living and working in the US. I saw young people with mighty backbones even if they were at the beginning of their careers. I saw people willing to stand up to bosses, and question authority, with a strong (sometimes exaggerated) sense of their own worth. In Spain, many people seem to grow from weak, compliant, complaining youth to either authoritarian, or resentful, “maturity”.

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with an old boss of mine – to this day, the best boss I’ve had. He has done well here; he manages a large team at a large company, and leads important projects. We talked of the good old days. In our team, back then, we had a spirit of adventure. We were excited, we were always going beyond the call of duty. We were a real team. His teams now, he told me, just don’t have that spark. I don’t think it’s misty nostalgia speaking; I think it’s a sign of the country and the times.

Spain is in the middle of an election year, and there is great political turmoil. Not enough, if you ask me, but this turmoil is warranted, in a country that has been brought to its knees. I don’t know what the outcome will be, and I fear that not enough will change. But it comforts me to know that there are large groups of people here who are not content to stare at the ground while they suffer and complain in private.