A few weeks ago I started a graduate program in English Literature, which admittedly has nothing to do with coffee and everything to do with being allowed to continue to teach in a public school (trying to be a writer and trying not to be homeless is complicated).
I wasn’t planning to see any overlap between graduate work and coffee writing, and I had no intention of embarrassing myself by trying to make some forced connection between the two. But this week, a connection was placed directly in my lap and I can’t help but share it.
Last week I was having lunch with a Colombian friend and mentioned a book that I read this fall, Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives of Colombians Displaced by Violence, which chronicled the atrocities of the FARC, ELN, and Paramilitary groups in Colombia over the past three decades. The narratives told of truly horrific actions. I told my friend that Colombians, in the collective, were the most optimistic, warmest group of people I had ever met. Even though I didn’t travel to the regions most affected by guerilla and paramilitary violence, all over the country there was a sense of positivity among Colombians—born in all regions—that seemed incongruous with a country whose recent history included lethal fighting that directly invaded peoples homes and uprooted hundreds of thousands.
My friend’s response was that even though those events were relatively recent, they were in the past. It wasn’t a dismissal so much as an acknowledgement that bitterness is not a good thing to carry forward. I accepted the idea but couldn’t really understand, how a country as a whole could be happy instead of resentful.
Three days later one of my professors posited that Homer and his Greek contemporaries were “the most cheerful pessimists. They could be destroyed but never defeated.”
In my notes I scribbled “COLOMBIA.”
The Greeks could have their farms decimated, daughters abducted, and cities razed by vengeful and petty gods controlling the forces of nature, but they couldn’t be defeated. That thing that makes us human and which makes us consider philosophy, get curious about medicine, and want to run faster, jump higher, build more exquisitely, paint more vividly, and write more compellingly is precisely the thing that squabbling, jealous gods can never defeat. They can’t defeat the humanity they don’t have.
Olympus is far, far from the Andes, but Colombia knows what Greece knew about the difference between destruction and defeat. Much of Colombia was destroyed—in the baldest sense of the word—by mass slaughter of civilians, obliterating of crops, burning of homes, crashing of planes, and constant gunfire. But Colombians are not defeated. People have since returned to land that was abandoned during the heat of the conflict and are planting again.
The narrators in Stones at the Moon expressed heavy sadness, mourning, and exhaustion at having to restart their lives over and over, at being forced to be refugees in their home country. If I had only ever read the book and never been to Colombia or known any Colombians in New York, I might have thought that the country was a dark, tragic place filled with weeping people licking their wounds.
It is not. Time heals, but so does a refusal to be defeated. This can be extrapolated to coffee farmers, and other farmers, beyond Colombia. Whether it’s optimism or cleverly disguised cheerful pessimism, there are hundreds of thousands of farmers who refuse to be defeated.
The commodity market acts like a temperamental deity and the weather has never had any mercy. If the Romans were CEO warriors who liked control, then the Greeks were coffee farmers, cheerful realists with no doubt about how quickly things can get really, really bad, but also with no reason to see that as an excuse to not keep trying with absolute effort.
This is probably the coolest thing about timeless stories; you think you’re going to battle with Hector in the Trojan War, but really you’re just going back to a finca de café.