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Thoughts On A Broken Cup
An essay (ravings, really) on personal responsibility
In my last article, I wrote about personal responsibility in the context of avoiding being kidnapped1 by the time-share cartel2 in Mexico. The personal responsibility part was more of an aside, but it resonated with some readers, so I thought I'd write a full-blown article (and I use the word "article" here very generously) on the subject. But rather than going into the scientific foundations of personal responsibility, and bore you with phrases like "quantum decoherence" and "mass-energy equivalence", I thought I'd look at personal responsibility through the lens of language; more specifically, parts of language; more specifically still, the verb parts of language.
I have made the observation that some people like to talk about personal responsibility in Mexico as a by-product of the apparently no-fault way Spanish reflexive verbs work. If a cup falls on the floor and it breaks, and you are an English speaker, you might say: "the cup broke". If you are a Spanish speaker, you would say "la copa se rompió"; literally "the cup broke itself". Before elaborating on this, I would just like to suggest that now might be a good time to go and fix yourself a cup of coffee, because I'm going to spend the next 770 words talking about English and Spanish verbs (I read somewhere that there are people who don't drink coffee. I don't know if this is true - it sounds pretty outlandish - but if it is and you are one of those people, then you might want to try balancing a bowl on your head; the act of balancing it to keep it from falling to the floor and breaking (or breaking itself) might be enough to prevent you from falling asleep while reading this next section).
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Now, back to that broken cup. In English, the cup broke. But that doesn't tell the whole story, does it? "The cup broke" is an opening, an invitation to learn more. Cups don't just break. Someone caused the cup to break, either by carelessly dropping it or by putting it too close to the edge of the table, even though any fool could see that the cat would come by and knock it right off. We English speakers, when hearing that a cup broke, want to know who broke it, or, at the very least, whether the cat who knocked it off the table was a tabby or a calico (spoiler: it was a tabby). The reason we want so desperately to know who broke the cup is: it's the first thing our lawyer is going to ask us when we call her to get the ball rolling on the lawsuit that we hope will eventually reimburse us for the replacement cost of the cup (and if things go the way we hope, also reimburse us for the emotional pain and suffering of having lost our beloved cup).
As I pointed out, cups break differently in Mexico, because Mexicans (for the most part) speak Spanish. In Mexico, "la copa se rompió" is a closing. We don't have to make any inquiries to figure out who (or which gato) is at fault: the fault has been assigned by the reflexive verb romper (to break). In a reflexive verb, the verb reflects back to the subject that is performing the action. That's why they're called "reflexive". So let's break it down: la copa se rompió. The verb here is rompió (broke). The subject is la copa (the cup). Pop quiz: who performed the action? No, it wasn't your neighbor Joe, who you never liked in the first place and who you can't wait to slap with a lawsuit. There is only one subject in that sentence, and, as I've stated, the subject performs the action in cases of reflexive verbs. So it is the cup who performed the action: the cup is the subject, the cup performed the action. In Mexico, cups are just little dynamos of activity. But I digress. Case closed! The sentence tells us everything we need to know: the cup is broken and it broke itself. In Mexico, we don't have to call our abogada, because it would be silly to bring a lawsuit against a cup, and anyway the cup is so broken that getting even a few centavos out of it would take a miracle.
Whoa, there, cowboy
Just slow 'er down, there, pardner. Isn't the above indicative of the reverse narrative on personal responsibility? Doesn't the fact that in the U.S., cups are broken by (criminally negligent) people and in Mexico, cups run around breaking themselves lead us to conclude that there is personal responsibility in the U.S. (a person is responsible), and there is not personal responsibility in Mexico (a cup is responsible)? No! Your conclusion fell into a paradoxical trap that I have cleverly hidden from both sight and reason.
In Mexico, because cups break themselves, one must always be on the lookout for broken cups. If you are not on the lookout for broken cups, you will inevitably step on one. And because you are wearing flip-flops, you will cut your big toe and have to go to the doctor's office adjacent to the pharmacy and get stitches. Your lack of personal responsibility - being on the lookout for suicidal cups - just got you in trouble.
In los Estados Unidos, one really doesn't have to be on the lookout for broken cups, because: a) people break cups, and people are more careful not to break cups because people don't want to be held liable for breaking a cup; and, b) if you do happen to hit the jackpot and step on a broken cup in your flip-flops and cut your toe, you'll still have to get stitches (although not next to a pharmacy, and you'll pay $40,000 for those stitches) but, you will also sue the cup breaker - if not the entire city itself wherein the cup was broken - and get upwards of $16,000,000 in return. Not a bad payday for a cut toe. In the U.S., one doesn't need to practice personal responsibility because there is always someone to blame and financially ruin (i.e. the cup breaker/city of broken cups).
So, I implore you, practice personal responsibility in Mexico. Look around. Be aware. Be ready to duck or jump. Because cups are literally flying off the shelves at you.
The photograph above is of an actual broken cup that was an unbroken cup when I purchased it in Guadalajara (Guadalajara is where one goes to buy cups). It was shipped to me via DHL, along with a bunch of other unbroken cups, but this one chose to break itself. If I had shipped it to myself in the U.S., someone at DHL would be having a very bad day.
I've been having fun with it here, but language is powerful. It both reflects and influences our cultures, norms, and mindsets - indeed, it informs the very way we think. There is a greater sense of personal responsibility in Mexico, but it doesn't all come down to language and reflexive verbs. But, perhaps, a bit of it does.
See footnote #1