Have you ever thought that the president of a country, instead of living like the richest 1%, should live like the rest of the population?
You are not the only one. And it seems like a utopia, but no. It is possible and not a crazy idea after all. A Prime Minister once refused to live in the presidential residence and donated most of his salary to charity because “I earn more than I need”. According to him, the wealthy should feel the honour of being able to contribute on a bigger scale than the rest. He is the kind of successful outcast I am talking about.
The car that you see above is very similar to the one that Pepe Mujica drives. He is an Uruguayan politician and activist who refused to leave his precious old Beetle behind as he became the president of his country from 2010 to 2015. He also refused to live in the presidential house and remained in his farmhouse, where he still grows food and cares for his animals. This man had as much power as most of us could wish and decided to share it. He did this by giving away $257.210 to build homes for those financially disadvantaged and donating $60.000 in machinery and equipment. But these are just a few examples. His patrimony is the one of a regular citizen, and he still contributes more than many wealthy businessmen do.
Who is Pepe Mujica?
José Alberto Mujica Cordano started his political journey on the losing end of the balance to the point that in the 1960s, he became a guerrillero, and by 1985 he had spent more than 13 years in prison. You would imagine that after spending so much time as a hostage of a dictatorship, he would become bitter and vengeful. Instead, he used his time as a minister and president to look forward and lay out a better future for Uruguay. He has never used politics as an act of personal revenge against those who hurt him so much. When he is asked about it, he answers with the following:
“There are things that you just cannot forget, but in life there are bills that are not collected. They go in a backpack and you just have to learn to walk.”
I don’t know if this is a life lesson, but it is certainly good advice. After one has suffered for years, what’s the point of extending that suffering only to state the fact that you feel hurt? All the pain you feel every morning isn’t going away when you inflict it on others. By lunchtime, it’s going to be there. And at night, when you realize you just made someone feel as bad as you feel, that pain will increase. The only way to get some sort of payback is to make something out of that pain. You can create using those feelings, you can talk about it to make people aware of that painful reality, or you can try helping to reduce this way their suffering.
Feelings are impossible to control, so don’t try to control your grief because the past is written in stone. If you need to cry, cry hard until you finish your tears. If you need to hide for a while under a warm blanket, go ahead, but don’t stay there forever. Comfort food is also a way of grieving, though you can get fat. But seeking personal justice…. That won’t bring you peace. Actually, it will deepen the pain.
This is Mujica during an interview in Spanish. Only hearing his voice feels peaceful.
Lesson number 1
“Succeeding in life is not winning, it is getting up every time one falls.”
That’s another one of Mujica’s wise sentences. As a guerrillero he felt gloriously. He was not only imprisoned but tortured. He was captured. He lost. He failed so badly that anybody would think the game was over. However, after over a decade of cold loneliness, he got up and went back to follow his life’s purpose. This story tells me that sometimes it takes time before we can really start getting back on our feet. Holding onto a strain of hope might be all we need. If we forget about winning and focus on enduring, we increase our chances of success. It is a matter of statistics.
Lesson number 2
“I don’t want my son to miss anything.”
“He misses you, pendejo!”
Mujica often says that he has acquaintances who tell him they work very hard to get as much money as possible so their children will have anything they need. Pepe finds it sad and funny simultaneously because, even though they do it for their children, they can’t even spare an afternoon to spend with them. Mujica puts much emphasis on relationships. He reminds us that getting to know someone and creating a friendship takes a lot of effort and time.
He also criticizes the accumulation of things, even empty experiences. Filling your house with stuff or filling your time with TV shows won’t make much sense as the end approaches. However, meaningful friendships can transcend the “here and now” of fleeting pleasures. When someone is in love, the happiness they feel is much greater and more lasting than the sexual pleasure of a frugal encounter. And so is everything in life. Just think about that couple of friends that you meet to play board games while wearing sweatpants. They mean much more to you than those you meet on Saturday for a fancy and expensive dinner in the best restaurant in town, just to prove how hard you work in your high-paid job.
Lesson number 3
“To be free is to spend the greatest amount of time of our life in what we like to do.”
How do you want to spend your life’s time?
How do you want to harness the miracle of having been born?
Mujica asks this question to whoever wants to listen. And, for those who don’t want to wonder about it, he tells them: “Don’t worry, the market will take care of it, and you are going to spend your life buying things you don’t really want.”
Freedom is a complicated and relative concept, but I find Mujica’s perspective the closest thing to a definition. When we say we want to be free, we usually mean that we want to choose how we live. Some people also want to be able to do anything that comes to their minds. I don’t think it is about that. The world is too complicated to grant everybody such choices. If individuals want freedom, it has to be something simple, easy to achieve, and of course, maintainable over time. That’s why I like Mujica’s idea of freedom, not because it offers many options but because it offers attainable satisfaction. In the supermarket, we see a bunch of different options for each product. They all have different labels, some have different flavours, and some have different sizes or packaging. We also see many price options. You can buy a well-known brand or the supermarket’s own brand. And then, of course, you will be offered many discounts and saving-packs. When you leave that supermarket, you might leave with the sensation that you have chosen your groceries with total freedom. Actually, you took those products that the supermarket has decided to offer you, which are often not an inch close to sustainability.
Some people know the power of the market, and in order to minimize its influence, they only go with a shopping list because freedom is to spend your money on what you want and need. Or how Mujica puts it:
“You don’t buy with money, you buy with the time of your life that you spent on earning that money. And the time of life is not refillable.”
When I listen to Pepe Mujica, I always feel like he is saying the most obvious thing in the world. But it doesn’t matter how many times he speaks; it is still necessary to remind us that we are humans, after all. We are animals who not only survive but seek happiness. We have been shown a path, and we recently found out that the path isn’t leading anywhere, so perhaps it is time to look for alternative ways of leaving.
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