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Sometimes it’s a Different Kind of Power That Truly Matters: an Open Letter to Arion Bank

The landscape up north, between Egilsstaðir and Mývatn. Lots of barren gorgeousness. 

These days there's a lot of talk here about tourism-gone-rogue, with our over million visitors per year becoming less and less manageable as far too many of them continue to underestimate (in their attempts to take that perfect tourist photo?) how dangerous our landscape is. 

Please play safe here during your stay!

Also in the news is the excellent profits made by our banks in 2015. Though financial stability and gain are symbolic of a healthy economy overall, there's never much joy in reading that kind of news for the average struggling Jón and Stína trying to make ends meet. But if your business, say an advertising agency or print shop or furniture supplier or interior design firm or
web development group, can find a way to suck off the teat of the banks as they close neighborhood branches to open new, shiny more remote ones, or as they go on marketing sprees, or revamp their online and mobile banking services, you might love their success. And if you're out there in the world imagining that we've figured out the formula for training our banksters to behave, you might admire us for our diligence.* After all, everything's a matter of perspective, isn't it? 

Regarding perspective, I'd like to share a letter I wrote and sent to all the highest-set fólk at Arion Bank in March 2014. I've shared it on facebook, but was a little hesitant to publish it here. I suppose on some level it felt like I was writing myself into a certain reality, that by admitting my lack of wealth so clearly I was making it so, law of attraction-wise.  

In re-reading it two years after writing it, though, it's clear that the take-away message isn't what I don't have, monetarily or otherwise, but what I do have and what I'd like to continue to grow and nurture within me: integrity, foresight, tenacity, compassion, and faith that these things are what living a good life are made of. 

Back in 2014 I had to use my Sherlockian skills to discover the email addresses of the top level players at Arion. After cracking the pattern used for all in-company email addresses, I sent out this letter and was promptly contacted by the CEO's ombudsman, who apologized profusely for all that the bank had put me through. They've been very nice to me since, especially after another round of fail on their part last year, though what it took to get that nice was beyond acceptable. 

Here then is the letter I wrote, which I think may have jarred the consciences of certain high-set members of the bank upon reading it back in 2014, and hopefully still does. In my opinion it's less about me or greed or banks, and all about what motivates us, and how, truly, we're all in this together...  

Read on: 

(My situation is clearly mapped out in my customer file, if you are interested in knowing the impetus for this letter, though it isn't necessary. I am one of many, with an all-too familiar experience.)

Good afternoon, Arion Bank officers and board.

Your bank owes me an apology. 

I just want to let you all know, though, that I am aware that Arion Banki isn’t going to do anything for me except continue to send me collection agency threats (innheimtubréf) and charge me interest for the year that my overdraft has so graciously been put on hold. I am the little person on the street, the once-hopeful now-bad risk, the working, striving poor and helpless pawn in an international game of financial chess decades in the making. I am the sacrifice for others’ profit.

I am also highly educated, and considered in the top 5% of intellect in the United States, where I grew up. My parents moved to California from 101 Reykjavik in the Sixties to give my sister and I a better life, with greater opportunities. I started my educational career at one of the best universities in the US, studying a field of science that was brand new, and that few were even accepted to, psychobiology. I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be stuck in a lab coat, but wanted to experience the world, study the human experience, and write about it. That is what I do today: I'm a writer. 

My handicap has always been that I'm not so hard-scrabble, hamster-wheel ambitious, and that I have a hard time playing by broken rules in corrupt scenarios. That said, I have tried to play the financial “game” here as best I can, and as honestly. 

There were many times when I could have cheated, skimmed off the top, lied, swindled grant money and so forth, but have chosen not to. I've faced the financial crash experience as best I could, and hunkered down as a teacher to make sure my two children have had a stable, loving home during challenging times. I've helped my parents during their move back to Iceland after 40 years abroad, and feel that I'm an honest, caring, stable adult. 

So I’m not a flake, or an idiot, or a cheat or a thief or a whiner or any of the other things the righteous wealthy like to call the less financially endowed. I am where I am because I’ve always believed in the goodness of people, though they have not always proved me right. I grew up with extremely wealthy people out in California, Saudi princes and top models and brain surgeons and Texan oil barons and, interestingly enough, the son of one of the founding members of the CIA. I've had dinner with a former director of the FBI.  I know what money and power do and don’t do. I know they can corrupt even the most gentle soul, and I know that they cause a distinct change in brain functioning: the altruistic and compassionate systems of the brain are overridden by the hormonal rewards that profit and acquisition provide. It can potentially happen to any of us, at any income level, but there does seem to be an unfortunate correlation between a reduction in altruism and an increase in wealth and power. 

I personally do not pray to the heavens for MORE MONEY or wish for INSTANT WEALTH. What I want to be able to do is honor my obligations and especially my financial ones. I entered into various contracts with various parties for a variety of goods and services, and my sole desire at this point is to be able to fullfill my end of those contracts in a timely and honorable fashion. The machinations of the top-level players in the global economy as well as in the local one have made that increasingly more difficult. This is a fact (and not the conspiratorial ramblings of a lazy, bitter worker as we the ever-striving middle and lower income groups are often made out to be.) 

I joke with my mother that the stupidest move I’ve made in my life is not marrying an Icelandic fisherman or some international banker. Then I’d be set, yes? Pretty little woman behind the wealthy powerful man. I chose instead to be self-sufficient, and responsible and respectable, as I'm sure most of you women in power feel yourselves to be. Kudos to you for making it to the top. I did not, however, choose to enter into the world of finance. Another fail on my part, I suppose. 

Arion is beholden to its shareholders and to its board. It is required to make a profit, regardless of how immoral some of its practices seem to smell. I am one of thousands of “customers” trapped in a vicious cycle of debt-and-interest by a non-transparent institution that proudly advertises profits* gained, in large part, off of the humiliation of those beholden to it. Honestly, one of the worst days in recent months was when I discovered that Arion now owned my mortgage, just when I can see the light at the end of the tunnel on paying off my overdraft with the bank, a four-year transaction which has been riddled with incompetence on Arion's part.  

And yes, just today another innheimtubréf  was shoved into my mailbox. Not because I’m stupid or irresponsible, but because I, with all good faith, chose to become a teacher and a translator, and to influence the next generation of Iceland not realizing seven years ago how very very lowly we are regarded by the power-holders of this country; because I have tried to make the best out of very difficult personal situations over which I had no control; because I didn’t marry for money; because to me nurturing myself as a writer and passing on wisdoms I've gathered was and is more important than living life in a laboratory coat, or even becoming just another hack with a business or marketing degree. 

I know Arion won’t do anything for me. Can’t do anything for me, except continue to automatically churn out computer-generated late notices, charge me (probably) illegal fees for its own mistakes, and chronically not call me back as promised. 

But I can do something for Arion, and that’s this: I can remind you, Höskuldur, and the other seemingly detached heads of this bank, what it feels like to be on the other end of money, and how sometimes it’s not a lack of power that keeps a person in the poverty cycle, but the exact opposite: 

Sometimes it’s a different kind of power, the power that comes with integrity, the power of an intelligence that refuses to be dampened down to play a corrupt game, that makes earning and keeping an honest dollar (or króna) so difficult. 

I encourage you all to think for a few moments about what money and business power have truly brought you. Are you a better person today than when you were struggling to get along in the world? Or if you never had to struggle financially, when you were trying to get a beginner's toehold in the financial sphere, a seat at the VIP gambling table, so to speak? Maybe you are, I hope you feel you are. But were you a bad person then? What has changed to separate you from the masses? Do you have children or grandchildren who are now ‘poor’? Who are students, trying to buy their first home, trying to pay off a student loan? What do you advise them when they feel ill-treated by private or governmental institutions? Ultimately, who are you today, and what would you be willing to sacrifice to be that hopeful, dream-filled optimist you once were? 

You owe me an apology, and you will give me nothing. I do hope, however, that you’ll take the time to find out what, deep down, you may just owe yourselves as well. 

Best regards, 

Maria Alva Þórisdóttir Roff

*The article linked is from March 2015, a year after I sent the original letter. At that time the bank's profits from 2013 had just been proudly flaunted. 

So yes, like any other place on Earth, we've got our problems. But we've also got our glories and some extremely talented people, including acquaintances of mine Jóhann Jóhannsson who Wired magazine is calling "the next big thing in film music" and Everest's Baltasar Kormákur whose new show Trapped is getting great reviews.  And it's awesome seeing Iceland featuring in the Wachowski's Sense8, a tv series I belatedly discovered last night and am in love with already, four episodes in. 

And then there's the next-gen of creativity, like singer Sturla Atlas and his 101 Boys crew, who my daughter Vala Roff's boyfriend, Egill Ástráðsson, manages and helps produce (and she helps him, of course!! ~.^ ) Everything these millennials in my life do is pure clean genius...somehow effortlessly stylized and gorgeous, with an essence of inbuilt creativity and quality that us oldsters can only marvel at. Love them! 

* Update April 14th: We had jailed some banksters, but someone changed the laws recently, and after barely scratching the surface of their sentences, they're pretty much free. 

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