Can we ever pay back our debts?

We are living in a world crippled with debts where younger generations are doomed to spend most of their adult life reimbursing their university loans. Older generations are rightfully accused of jeopardising the future of their children and thwarting their legitimate social aspirations. But does each generation start their lives with a blank sheet, a tabula rasa? Do not traditions ensure that the experience and lessons (good and bad) of the past are transmitted from one generation to another? Respect for one’s elders is the cornerstone of every culture and when a child, be it Oedipus or Cordelia, break the natural bond between parent and offspring though their actions or words, the world seems turned upside down. In other words, we are never entirely free from our duties towards others, be they ancestors, relatives, friends or work colleagues. Doing an unselfish favour to someone necessarily implies an implicit debt contracted in equal measure by the benefactor and the beneficiary of that favour.

Philosophically speaking, it means, as the Talmud scholar Emmanuel Lévinas emphasised time and time again in his ethical writings, that we do not exist outside the Other’s approving gaze. Unlike Sartre, who saw in the very existence of the Other, a potential threat to my personal freedom, Lévinas regarded the physical presence of the Other in my life as a permanent reminder of God’s love for humanity. It was as if any ‘stranger’ acquired a quasi-divine dimension, requiring my immediate and unconditional attention and solicitude. We are, like it or not, ‘indebted’ to everyone else for different, sometimes unconscious, reasons. In the same way, everyone is, somehow, ‘indebted’ to us as we may, on some rare occasions, be in a position to exert God’s power of forgiveness and exonerate someone of an oppressive moral debt. In the financial world, however, a debt can never be paid off without an interest being added and imposed by the creditor. In both cases, moral and financial debts are difficult to wipe off since ‘owing’ something to someone puts us in a permanent state of obliged inferiority in the eyes of our potential redeemer or loaner.

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