Essay #2: We are not as important as we think we are (or The Shoe Shiners Dilemma)

A shoe shiner sits poised at their corner, made tense by the hot pavement, next to a busy street, desperately calling out to the passing cars with offers for their shoe shining services. No one in the cars can hear their calls. Windows are up, people are talking hands-free, air con is on. Those who do walk by are looking down at their phones and besides no one is looking to get their crocs shined. Those who are out in the heat are probably looking to make their own bit of dough or find a place to sleep. It’s been a while since the shoe shiner has had any customers. They can’t help but remember when they were little. When they would proudly watch their ancestors smiling up at all the people who were lined up around this same street corner, waiting for a shine. What happened?

We are not as important as we think we are.

Once we released the manifesto, we realized that we had not defined our “we”. In meta terms, “we” = “humans”. In macro terms, “we” = “western hemispheric concepts of humans”. In micro terms, “we” = “performing arts in Canada”. We – in micro terms – are in the midst of the painful realization that we are not as important as we think we are and certainly not as powerful. This is equally true at the crossroads of the current challenges with AI as it is with the environment that gives us life. For billions of people, this has never NOT been true. But we – through the pervasiveness of Judeo-Christian doctrine – were led to believe that we were put here to propagate, so as to better secure our dominion over all things. This idea has made a mess of all the things. Even the name, the Dominion of Canada, was changed in 1982 to better reflect advancing ideas of egalitarian and democratic values.

We need to shift what we value and who.

Snapped out of their wistful reverie by a 7-11 big gulp cup tossed from a truck and landing on their head, the shoe shiner spots a distinguished-looking older gentleman wearing a three-piece suit on the other side of the street. The shoe shiner notices that the gentleman is wearing a great-looking pair of leather shoes. After jumping up and down, doing a couple of arresting dance moves, and singing ‘do the locomotion’ at the top of their lungs, the shoe shiner finally gets the gentleman’s attention. Not surprisingly, distinguished though he is, the gentleman has failing eyesight, is hard of hearing, and often feels isolated by these facts. The gentleman is delighted to be beckoned over. It is so rare that people notice him in this bustling world! Of course, he would like his shoes shined! A big smile. The shoe shiner smiles too! Connection! And just as the shoeshiner is about to set to work, the man clutches at his chest, his eyes roll back in his head and he falls to the ground. Dead.

The micro “we” are struggling and our biggest fans are dying. 

For centuries, Indigenous and Eastern ways of knowing have been offering wisdom for how humans fit within the world. The Western hemisphere – the macro world –  is still struggling to accept this wisdom. Recent heat waves, fires and floods are helping to speed up a shared understanding of the need. “We”, defined now as westernised “human-shaped domination machines”, have throughout history done two things well – ignore data and risen above others. Not all boats have risen alongside us domination machines. Cultures have been crushed, animals have gone extinct, icebergs have melted and forests are burning. This sounds catastrophic. It is. We are in a crisis. It is not just a crisis in the performing arts. It is a human crisis, a crisis of human supremacy. Yet, “the performing arts”, as defined by us here, are a Western idea built to celebrate humanity and to profit (financially or otherwise) from that celebration. That’s a tough sell right now. 

Sitting beside the corpse of the distinguished gentleman, the shoe shiner’s mood turns sombre and reflective. “Poor me,” they think, “there was a time when what I did meant something, when all the world wanted a shine!” They feel bad for feeling this way, a man is dead after all, “but godammit, it’s not fair!” Each year they have given more, more, more. They have worked HARD. They studied the ancients on the classical methods and they experimented with avant-garde approaches. They read all the shoe-shining books and religiously attended ShineCon even though the registration fees had gone through the roof. They have the latest assortment of brushes and polishes for every type and colour of leather and they even studied the art of buffing Nikes. A passerby trips on the dead man’s arm and swears at the shoe shiner, telling them to move their business out of the way. The shoe shiner knows that no matter how loudly they shout, no one is going to help.  

We are not as important as we think we are. If this is true, then what is important? 

Healthcare? Education? Roads? Democracy? It’s impossible to speak about the waning importance of the arts as separate from the apparent waning import of human life. It is perhaps why so much writing feels ineffectual. Human supremacy is on the wane. How do we, purveyors of human stories, respond to this? The 20th-century notion of democratization of culture is – just that – a 20th-century idea. There were a number of flaws with the idea to begin with. Here are some: One size does not fit all. The “culture” that is being democratized is likely not the culture wanted and/or needed, the costs of offering this “culture” to all people is beyond the capacities of any money-printing outfit, and the promise of democracy has floundered in the post 9/11 and Covid moments. 

Change means change. We are not as important as we think we are.

Back in the day, the shoe shiner used to believe in their contributions, after all, what kind of civilized society would want unpolished shoes? But today, sitting beside a corpse in a three-piece suit, the shoe shiner isn’t so sure. An idea arises. Previously, the shoe shiner believed that their job was to offer the customer a reflection of themselves in the shine of their shoes. But what if it wasn’t the reflection, at all, but the smiles of joy that the shoe shiner was meant to offer? In a moment, they understood that their calling was actually to make people feel valued. The shoe shiner rummages through their stuff and finds a large piece of cardboard and starts scribbling on it. 

We need to do less. And we (Owais and SGS) call ourselves out on this because we realize we are hypocrites. Self-importance leading to overproduction. We are doing too many things in too many places, trying to fill our insatiable excitement and passion for doing more good in the world. But being guilty ourselves doesn’t mean we are unfit to make the diagnosis. We all believe that doing less means doing better. It also means potentially doing differently. “We”, in the performing arts, do not have the job of nation-building. We do not have the job of improving the lot of others, we do not have the job of educating, we do not have the job of preaching. All of those professions are already floundering; we do not need to add our weight to their demise.

The shoe shiner finishes making their new sign and puts it next to their older sign “shoes shined, satisfaction guaranteed!”. The new sign reads: “Help me find a resting place for this man and I will help you find respite for your tired feet!” A passerby deeply engaged in a true crime podcast glances at the sign as they walk past. She does a double-take and stops. “What happened to this man?” she says too loudly over the podcast’s terrifying score. “He had a heart attack a few minutes ago and sadly he has passed,” the shoe shiner says. “Oh my god. Poor man. Poor you! I was stopped by your sign. It’s good,” she says.  “Thank you!” the shoe shiner says, “It’s new! I didn’t know what else to do.” The woman checks the corpse’s vitals, confirming he has passed. “I have no money,” she says, “but I will help you find a resting place for this man in exchange for a foot rub.” The shoe shiner smiles ruefully. These are not the best of times but they are suddenly better than before. “Thank you,” they say. The passerby takes out her earbuds and slips off her Birkenstocks.

After the massage, they each lean in to pick up the distinguished man’s body. She looks at the shoe shiner and says:  “Thank you, my arches were killing me. You have a gift”. They hoist the body and begin to walk. “My pleasure,” the shoe shiner says, “and don’t forget, I also do shoes!” 

If it is true that we are not as important as we think we are, then we have a new job. And it is an exciting and very necessary one. We have the job of providing succour, sustenance, possibility and hope. We do have something profound to offer.  And while we referred to it as a job, we need to consider it more like a vocation. A calling. What’s calling you?



3 Responses to “Essay #2: We are not as important as we think we are (or The Shoe Shiners Dilemma)”

  1. David Avatar

    As usual, I find myself looking forward to these posts and waiting impatiently for the next one to come. Thank you both for the work of bringing the ideas to life, so vividly, and having such good ideas in the first place. I am very interested in the potential for misanthropy in your argument here. Coming out of sustainability and climate change, we have seen the misanthropic approach yield very little, and the alternative cosmologies, you evoke, I think, make an artful distinction between not being important, while at the same time decentering in essential ways. As always, can’t wait to take up these ideas for their policy implications in the near future.

  2. Stefan Dzeparoski Avatar

    “If it is true that we are not as important as we think we are, then we have a new job. And it is an exciting and very necessary one. We have the job of providing succour, sustenance, possibility and hope. We do have something profound to offer. And while we referred to it as a job, we need to consider it more like a vocation. A calling. What’s calling you?” Just this little paragraph offers the opportunity to (re)think why and how we do what we do. The possibility of being important.

  3. Laura McLeod Avatar
    Laura McLeod

    I didn’t know where this was going but I like where it landed. How bold to ask why – sustenance. Less. Yes.

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