How having your shoes shined prompts reflection

Five years ago I wrote about the profound experience of having my shoes shined in one of the tree-filled, colonial squares in Queretaro, Mexico. http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2012/01/23/richard-smith-thoughts-on-a-shoeshining/  The shoe shiner did his work with such love and care that I was led to reflect that I rarely myself did such good work. He indisputably “added value” (clean, even resurrected, shoes), whereas I’m doubtful with my wittering that I ever do. Today I sat again in the same square having shoes cleaned, and again I found the experience profound.

Today’s shoe shiner did his work with just as much love. My year-old shoes had never been cleaned, and my father would have called them a “disgrace.” The man restored them to something like new; he even removed and cleaned the laces. A market economist might argue that he did his work so well because of competition: if he couldn’t match the quality of the many other shoe-cleaners he would be “out of business.” But I’m sure he was motivated by pride in his work.

As I sat on my shoe-shiner’s throne in the bright sunlight and watched people go by, I began wondering if his life was somehow worth less than mine. I’d no sooner had the thought than I was appalled by it, but I did have the thought.

I had the thought because of the considerable difference in our circumstances. I’ve travelled the world, visiting some 70 countries; there must be a high chance that he has never left Mexico (although I could, of course, be completely wrong). I have had more than 20 years of education; he might well be illiterate. Then there will be a vast difference in our wealth.

But all of this, I quickly thought, means nothing in terms of our worth. We both probably have family and friends, are part of a community. Perhaps he has a grandson he loves as strongly as I love my grandson who lives in Mexico. Uncharacteristically I thought of God and the Catholic Church: both know that every individual is worth as much as any other. If I were a Catholic I might even have to confess my momentary question about our relative worth.

But sat on my throne I began to question whether I thought every life equally valuable. I support abortion, but in this case I can argue that a 10-week-old foetus, which cannot survive outside of its mother, is not an individual equivalent to my shoe-shiner. I would also support a law like that in the Netherlands that stops resuscitation of babies born under 26 weeks’ gestation. Such babies can survive when resuscitated but have a high chance of being severely disabled. So I’m accepting that a baby born after 25 weeks’ gestation is not as valuable as my shoe-shiner or me. This is something to do with the idea that a life not started–in the sense of interacting with others–is not as valuable as one underway. It relates as well to the Greek idea that it may be preferable never to be born at all.

Then if offered the choice between living in the locked-in syndrome or death I would opt for death. (Or least, sat on this plane from Queretaro to Dallas/Fort Worth I would; it might be different if I get there.) Supporting the concept of assisted suicide, I clearly am open to the idea that some people can chose death, thereby deciding that their life is worth less than that of others. I want to have that choice myself and might one day opt for death.

And what about my demented mother? I know because we discussed it that she would have chosen death over her present state, but she never had that choice. I too would opt for death over existing in her state, which logically means that I value my mother’s life less than that of mine or the shoe-shiner. So, although surrounded by grand churches in the square and although momentarily attracted by the simplicity and moral directness of the Catholic Church, I’m clearly no Catholic.

The shoe-shiner has finished. I climb down from my throne and pay him 50 Pesos (about £2), twice his usual fee. He smiles at me for the first time.

Maybe if I had my shoes shined every day in Queretaro I could become a philosopher, or a priest.

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