Jeroen Smit: Mercy in Amsterdam's CBD – 'I miss the crisis'

Rene Boer

In the years 2007 to 2008 I delved deep into ABN Amro bank as an investigative journalist. Based on 135 interviews with bankers and directors as well as reams of documents, I reconstructed how the bank’s management had lost control of the bank’s future. That reconstruction, of which I give a detailed account in De prooi (translated as The Perfect Prey), chiefly reveals that the bank had lost sight of its utility function. The key players (just like many other bankers) had started to believe it was primarily the shareholders who had to be kept happy, and that the satisfaction of customers and employees would automatically ensue. Let the market do its job. Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.

We now know what this reasoning leads to: perverse incentives, bloated banks that need tax-funded bailouts. We have learnt that a good banker is in the first place someone who inspires confidence and is prudent, a good banker is a semi-bureaucrat: He takes care of the environment in which he operates.

This summer, the staff of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam asked me whether I wanted to go in search of mercy in society, for a ‘new mercy’. I immediately decided that Zuidas, Amsterdam’s 21st-century central business district and the home base of ABN Amro, was the logical place to conduct some fieldwork. What has actually been learnt there over recent years?

From journalist…

Anyone who randomly approaches people on the street, albeit in a calm, amicable tone, and asks how they relate to the concept of mercy faces a problem. In the first place many people don’t want to be accosted by strangers if it involves more than giving simple directions. In addition, the word ‘mercy’ instantly causes a fright or even a mild repugnance in the eyes. Is it about God, Jesus or worse – is this a Jehovah’s Witness? Does this person want to convert me?

To keep the conversation going it is important to quickly underscore that the questioner doesn’t want to convert anybody, and make it explicitly clear that he isn’t a Christian! The glance already becomes somewhat calmer, to immediately become nervous again with the statement that the person who approached them is just a simple journalist. With the promise that I really don’t need know what they’re called – a first name, age and field of work are sufficient – there is a hint of relaxation.

A quick explanation of my history (as author of De Prooi / The Perfect Prey) in relation to the Oude Kerk’s research around the theme of ‘mercy’ meant that in most cases the passers-by I approached granted me 5 to 10 minutes of their time.

… to pastor

For the first time in my life I felt more like a pastor than a journalist. Someone who asks other people about the role that mercy plays in their life, is actually taking someone’s measure. After all, you’re asking whether someone is genuinely concerned about other people, takes the world around them seriously. Moreover, the asking of that highly personal question suggests that the interviewer himself precisely knows the best way to fit mercy into life. Let there be no mistake about it: that is not the case in the least.

The majority of interlocutors blushed, started to search and to stammer, and observed that they should do more with mercy in their lives. And in fact the researcher frequently thought the same. There’s a high chance that some ‘seed of mercy’ has been planted, in various people. Below is a collection of some of the questions and answers that arose during these conversations.


What is mercy?

They’ve just had lunch. The two young men, slickly suited and booted, listen politely but warily when I introduce myself. ‘I’m Jeroen Smit, a journalist, a few years ago I wrote a book about ABN Amro, and the Oude Kerk has asked me to go in search of mercy, of charity. Given my background, it seemed logical to do that here. Could I ask you a few questions about this that will take just a few minutes?’

The first reacts resolutely, almost aggressively: ‘I’ve got no desire whatsoever to say anything about this. Why not? Do I need to explain?! Out of the question.’
The other nods to his companion in assent: ‘The same applies for me. And you want an explanation? I’m not such a charitable person.’

In three sessions of about an hour and a half, on three different days, 14 other people who work at Zuidas proved to be ‘merciful’ enough to make time for my questions. When I asked them about the meaning of the word, it usually caused inquisitively raised eyebrows.
‘It’s an old-fashioned word, it mainly makes me think of church. After all, it falls into the category of compassion, of pity. For me it has negative associations.’ (Jorik, 28). ‘Well, what is it now, doesn’t it have something to do with love of one’s neighbour?’ (Wes, 23). ‘I get edgy when I hear that word, because there are so many people who need help. I can’t solve all that suffering. So for many collection campaigns I think: That has little to do with me.’ (Tim, 51).

‘I primarily think of good causes.’ (Gieljan, 28). ‘I never use the word, never ever. Doesn’t it have something to do with generosity, with giving?’ (Roos, 29). ‘What an old word, from centuries ago. I think it’s about the acceptance of other people’s attitudes?! (Ruud, 55). ‘Caring for someone else who needs it.’ (Nathalie, 25). ‘Without being selfish, without wanting something in return. It also makes you feel good.’ (Eva, 38). ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, the ability to put other people’s needs before your own. The closer the easier, the big question is whether you’ll also do it for that total other, the stranger.’ (Pim, 31).

Mercy at work……?

Tim (51), asset manager: ‘I try to be a good person, but I have to earn a living too. That’s why I try to keep those things separate. In my work I don’t need to think about good or bad, because it’s obvious: the guidelines are imposed from above. It’s not about what I think is right or wrong. Being yourself is irrelevant. I try to make investments that give people the best possible pension. That’s what I’m judged by. No, revealing your doubts and vulnerability is something I’ve never come across at work, it doesn’t happen, it’s taboo. I can’t even imagine it. That’s private – those worlds don’t match. Yes, I think that’s also sad somehow.

I often think that I’m going to do something else. Perhaps I’m not a relief worker by nature, but for a long time I’ve felt that I ought to do something that has a greater genuine impact. I’ve done that before, when I went to work for a local council as a civil servant, in the hope of being able to mean something for the community where we live. But that mentality really drove me mad, all that red tape and bureaucracy. I got bogged down by it fairly quickly. This time it has to be something that fits. But I just don’t know what, I have misgivings. Money isn’t actually an issue, as we don’t have any children or an expensive house. I have to work to earn a living, but I don’t need so much. But what I am going to do then?’

Jasmijn (26) and Roos (29) both work in consultancy. Jasmijn: ‘I work in a tough world where it’s all about euros. It’s as simple as that. You’re nice to other people in the hope that they’ll come back to buy something else from you, and that’s it.’ Both of them comment: ‘No, of course we’re not doing what we really want to do.’

Jasmijn: ‘A girlfriend quit her job and is going to Lesbos to help refugees … that’s pretty cool, pretty hardcore. I don’t dare, as I’m afraid that I’ll lose myself in it, then I would be taking the world on my shoulders and that won’t make me happy.’

Martin (52), banker: ‘There’s little I can do with mercy at my work. I like my job, but it’s about numbers, analyses, etcetera. In addition, at work it is fairly simple: the interests of the organization take priority over the interests of the employees. It actually seems that there is less and less room for mercy. People are handled really harshly at my work. The Anglo-Saxon model is making itself fully felt only now. There’s no consideration for anything personal, the humane. Everyone has to find his own path. Well, in the past there used to be managers who understood what they need to manage, you could talk with them, but you don’t get those any more either. Our managers care about nothing but their own targets.

Jasper (21), financial account manager: ‘People here are in a rush, are result-focused. Very recently I was standing in the lift and I saw someone approaching so I pressed the doors-open button. I heard a woman next to me sigh: “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” She was evidently in a rush. I wished her a lovely day as I walked out. I don’t see myself sitting here until I’m the other side of 40. Combining this work with a family is actually impossible. Then the family comes first and I wouldn’t have any time left to hold lift doors open for other people.’

Gieljan (28), banker: ‘Whichever way you look at it, it’s money that motivates us here. You’re only judged on the result, on whether you’ve met the targets. And the rest can be achieved by transferring money to a good cause, doesn’t that help as well?’

Ruud (55), consultant in the financial sector: ‘At work I think about helping others, but that’s logical. You do that because you know that if I help you now then you’ll help me another time. In that regard I miss the crisis a little bit. Then there was more mercy, it seems. We all noticed that less is also good, there’s nothing wrong with the car I have now. The crisis brought people together, taking a step back isn’t a bad thing. It also forces you to hold out a helping hand occasionally.’

Eva (38) and Nathalie (25) are colleagues and work in a Human Resources department. Eva: ‘You can only keep up for a short while here at Zuidas. Otherwise you’ll work yourself to death. I can also imagine that when you mention mercy or charity many people think: Not just now, I really can’t deal with that as well. Later on perhaps, when everything has calmed down.’

Eva: ‘In my work everyone is always coming to me with questions, they always want something from me. They’re never interested in me.’

Nathalie: ‘No, at work there’s no space for mercy. It’s about targets, the bottom line, the KPIs. It’s not about your personal development. We do some voluntary work, but then with the whole company, it’s more a kind of PR. It always ends with a nice lunch. If you arrive at work slightly late because you’ve had a cup of coffee with a lonely little man – no, that’s not an option. ‘

‘Sometimes I think: we need a disaster to stir up feelings like this. Then you see an earthquake somewhere on the planet … people who help each other.’

Nathalie: ‘I simply don’t have any time to be an informal carer somewhere as well, there should be more leeway for this at work.’

Eva: ‘But can’t we make an arrangement for this?’

Nathalie: ‘But then it’s yet another arrangement. On the other hand, at Human Resources we never receive a request from someone for something like this. From someone who says: I want to go and help a neighbour.’

… and mercy away from work?

Pim: ‘It’s safe to say I don’t do it enough, I’m too preoccupied with myself. I think that’s also because I don’t know how or what. The meaningfulness is lacking. Yes, it rankles, this conversation rankles too. Now and again, if I take a step back, look at myself from a distance, then I think: Crumbs, why don’t you do more for other people? But it doesn’t truly eat away at me, of course, because then you would do something about it.’
Eva and Nathalie. Nathalie: For me it’s often limited to people who I know.’

Eva: ‘I know such a little old man in our neighbourhood, lonely. I rang his bell once, but nobody was in, so I left a message. A couple of days later he was standing at my door, but it was totally inconvenient. That was awkward, and after that we haven’t sought contact with each other. And my life is so full, so busy. And I admit it: it gnaws away at me. Imagine if I want someone to visit me later in life, when I’m old and lonely.’

Nathalie: ‘I recognize that, I often think: I’ll go and do some voluntary work, but I don’t do anything about it.’

Tim: ‘I want to look people in the eyes, take good care of them, make contact. I can’t exactly get passionate about a 2 or 3 percent yield, it does nothing for me and nor can it, because it’s far too abstract. I’m a music-lover, and just recently I saw someone in a music shop, for instruments. Then I thought, perhaps I could go and do that: help people with music.’

Jorik: ‘I don’t like the fact that someone else needs my help. It doesn’t make me feel cheerful. If it’s for a neighbour, I hope that I’m there if it’s necessary. But for someone who I don’t know, who’s sitting crying over there, then no, I won’t put an arm around that shoulder. So I guess I’m selective in my charitableness. And I think that’s logical: I can’t carry the burden of the whole world on my shoulders. So I actually give up in advance. I don’t have so many ideals. I think it’s important that people work honestly, but that doesn’t always prove to be the case here. Yet I also believe that if you want to put lots of energy into something you can achieve an and-and. That’s how I think I can remain true to myself.’

Gieljan: ‘No, I don’t get round to picking up a plastic bag on the street, tidying up someone else’s trash, or to go and drink a cup of coffee with a lonely grandpa. Then my mind quickly tells me that this man isn’t expecting this at all. I don’t give money to beggars either: They’ll just drink it.’

Ruud: ‘Help a stranger? I’ve thought about it, a kind of buddy role, but I simply don’t have any time for it: family, work, my life – it’s already full. Mmm, like a lonely pensioner down the street, of course you should do something about it, but you know. Yes, that rankles. I should do more. But I just let it chew away. For many years I helped my father, who died last year. In that sense I’ve had my share for a while.’

Martin: ‘I’m not involved with society enough. If I look at my wife, who is busy with the environment, involved with the school that the kids attend. I’ve simply got too little energy to do the things that I find really important.’

‘Yesterday I was getting groceries, still in my suit, and a woman, a slightly junkie-looking type, was standing at the entrance and she asked if I wanted to buy her street magazine. I told her in a slightly peevish, weary tone that I wasn’t interested. Oh, she said, am I not looking smart enough. I immediately regretted that comment: I started to apologize. She hugged me and gave me a kiss. I actually felt that was really sweet: I should simply have reacted differently.’

Jasmijn (26) and Roos (29). Jasmijn: ‘Whether I would like to read aloud for a lonely grandma occasionally? Where would I find the time, when I work until half past seven, then I go to see my horse, I’m in a relationship, I’ve got my girlfriends…’

Roos: ‘I recognize that, I almost feel guilty, but I’m just too busy with my own life. Of course, if I knew someone in the street, lonely, then I would be happy to have a chat with them. Though that can then start to feel like an obligation, then I’ll suddenly have to go every week, so no, I’d better not. My mother’s 65, and she does it, perhaps it suits better when you’re that age. I have to be honest: if I really, really wanted to, then I would do it. I don’t really want to. That’s also because of this city: there’s so much to do, people have so many expectations of you. I’m surrounded by so many people who are getting ahead, or in any case seem to be getting ahead. I also feel that I’ve got to do everything. Yup, that feels like surviving, but it’s a basic instinct. I have to look after myself first and puzzle out what I really want, and that’s going to take a while.’

And then Anton approaches us: ‘I noticed you having a conversation. I’m homeless, do you have any small change for me?’

Roos and Jasmijn simultaneously let out a cry: ‘This is karma, no two ways about it.’ They reach for their purses, apologize for the few small coins that they fish out, because they pay everything with a bankcard…

Anton is pleased nevertheless.

Anton (55), vagrant: ‘I can’t register with social services, because then it goes wrong. It always goes wrong. That’s why I often sleep outside. In the Amsterdamse Bos woods, where there are fewer checks, I feel safe. I’m not crazy, I went to grammar school, studied for a while.’

‘On some days I make 60 to 80 euros, but sometimes it’s just 20. If I’ve earned 80 euros, then I sleep in a hotel, which costs me 50 euros with breakfast, leaving me enough for an evening meal. I’ve been given 100 euros by someone, a couple of times 50 euros. Not necessarily here at Zuidas. Here they often tell me they pay taxes that are meant for services for people like me. So they don’t want to give me anything, because I should go and register with them.’

Mercy at Zuidas? Something for later.

What has this journalist-pastor learnt from this? There is nothing wrong with the people who work at Zuidas. They work hard, they feel responsible. They want to do the right thing, have mercy on other people. But something that also applies is that the more unfamiliar the other person, the smaller the urge to help. This is an urge that they feel, but they don’t really get round to doing anything. At work not at all, but they don’t expect that either. At work it is primarily a question of survival, of every man for himself. And because the work is so demanding, at home they only get round to it in dribs and drabs.

They consistently draw a clear distinction between what they are like at work and who they truly are. There is a gap between their integrity as employees and their integrity as private individuals. They find it simple to explain the difference: at work it revolves around hitting targets, everything that distracts from this has to be avoided, as it isn’t productive. The boss decides what’s good or bad.

Achieving those goals costs so much time and energy, in their private lives they are primarily exhausted from work, and there are also so many other pleasures and responsibilities. They wish it were different right now, but alas, there’s no chance of it. They have to survive here.

So they’ve decided that this job, this life, is temporary. That real life, a life with room for more mercy, begins after Zuidas.

It inspired hope and was touching to see how most people blushed or started to stutter when we talked about that lonely little man down the street during these short encounters. They see themselves sitting there in 30 to 50 years time and know that they’ll be hoping for just one thing: drop by, drink a cup of coffee with me, ask me how things are going.

It rankles, it rankles, it rankles.

Later! Later!

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