Okay, a more serious post today. (I’m not in a very sarcastic mood, I guess.)
Two weekends ago, I led my 8th grade Religious Education class. I really like the class because it’s for people of any or no faith – part of the Unitarian Universalist “congregation” – and it’s the perfect coming-of-age group to open up discussions that challenge their world views and how they perceive each other, peers, and strangers. This last Sunday, the curriculum called for a new chapter titled “Abundance”. The theme? Abundance vs. Scarcity. I get to pick lessons from the guidebook for the program (K-12) and alter them if necessary.
For this particular class, I opened with a question activity. These questions made them consider things like the definition of material wealth, “enough”, and whether abundancy is always positive and scarcity is always negative. They seemed pretty convinced that there is one American “dream”, that electricity is a need, and that starving people live in Africa – for the most part. I then read them some statistics about Indian Reservations to give them a perspective on how entire populations in the US live differently than they do, and they seemed shocked that the majority of folks on the Navajo Reservation don’t have electricity, as one example. Our last activity was a “feast”: I assigned each of them a role in the world as either one of the 1/3 starving, 1/3 underfed, or 1/3 fed enough. 1/3 had to draw empty plates and no water, `1/3 had a piece of bread and a glass of water, and 1/3 had several pieces of bread, an apple, and water. One girl drew the 2% card and could draw anything she wanted. We held a “feast” and shared our plates, then discussed how we would feel eating at the same table if it was Bring Your Own Meal. I told them this is what the world’s eating looked like and asked them to realize they likely fall in the fed enough category, but also experience enough luxury to sometimes feel like the 2%. In other words, these middle to upper class kids relative to the majority of kids in the world have so much freedom.
I wanted the kids to realize their skewed view on normalcy. That was a large part of the exercise. But in doing my preparation, I realized even my view was skewed. What did I view as normal? When you realize how skewed your view is and adjust it, doesn’t it change everything?
The fact that made me change my perspective was when I was writing down those electricity stats. I knew those stats. I’ve read and repeated and discussed them a thousand times, the disparages between communities. On Indian Reservations, sometimes it’s a choice to live a more “traditional” life without those services being provided to the “public”, meaning the tribe or residents on the Reservation. However, sometimes those conveniences just aren’t feasible. Whether or not the Navajo Reservation, for example, would like to provide its whole community with electricity, it’s still an enormous land tract with the largest Reservation population within US boundaries. Houses are far apart, sprawled across a rather unforgiving desert-scape.
Traditionally, people in the Diné community lived in hogans with fire and coals to heat their living spaces. I tried imagining myself on that Reservation today. I’ve traveled before and lived in some interesting conditions, like in Ouidah, Benin when the government would periodically pull the electric plug on a city and we’d have hours of darkness. I’ve roamed all across India, trying to keep up with my travel blog while my Internet key kept up a shaky, hit-or-miss connection. I’ve always felt connected while still subjecting myself to some of the conditions of the folks around me, but I’ve never lived without electricity as a permanent lifestyle. With my career in engineering, I began to wonder how that was possible. I imagined all the things that would be different: Maybe I’d have a trailer, but how would I heat it? Without it burning down? Without it being too cold for my cats? How would I heat water to bathe and be presentable for the workplace? To cook dinner? How would I store food? Where would I get my food? What about the Internet and electricity to charge my phone? It’s a luxury, I know, but what about someone who is trying to lead a “normal” work life and career? What if I had an emergency? If my car broke down? If I didn’t have a car?
Then I kind of laughed at myself and realized, people do this every day. The people on that Reservation don’t have those conveniences and they just live life. Sure, expectations in a “modern” career are much different, but surely people do it. This idea of a “traditional” life – it’s just that. It’s how people have lived forever. I know I’m tough and I can go without a lot, but I figured I would be the grumpiest “traditionalist”. Mostly because a heated house, space heater, and steaming water are still not hot enough to get me into and back out of a shower. I’m ALWAYS freezing! That would be the hardest part for me, and I already live with my heat turned way down or not on at all.
But I realized my lesson kind of opened my own eyes and brought me full-circle on something I had already begun to realize. I was now realizing my skewed view of normalcy, the skewed views of others (like these kids who think you need electricity to live a wholesome life), rather than just noticing the “skewed” view those without so many things have.
I saw “skewed”, because whose view is really skewed? Wouldn’t it be the non-traditionalist’s view that is the skewed one?
Things that initially made me consider how others view the world:
– In Cameroon, I was considered poor because I’m a healthy weight. Overweight women were considered the healthy, rich ones capable of feeding themselves. I had many long conversations in French while traveling West and Central Africa, explaining to my hosts that, in America, fattening food is often cheaper and the rich people tend to spend a lot of money to work out and buy “health” food to stay skinny. They were dumbfounded and called Americans crazy.
– In Benin, a restaurant owner and my language teacher told me people in their village enjoy their lifestyles. They said motorcycles and nice cloth are more of a luxury than anything and they do like having them, but they don’t want all the complicated things that come with the “modern American way of life”. They don’t want the stress, the pressure to come to work on the minute, the need to be available all the time. As they put it, they loved the relaxed, African life and wouldn’t trade it for any of our luxuries.
– In India, I watched folks sleep on the highway medians, carry water long distances, and even wrap themselves in more clothing against the hot sun in a 120-something-degree weather. To them, it’s just the hot time of year. They don’t have fans or air-conditioning.
– In most of these third-world kind of conditions, food was local, in-season, natural, just completely normal food.
So this brings me to my last point:
In considering all the things in our lives we do that we think are “normal” and how our view of normalcy is skewed and affects the way we perceive the world, our daily lives, and our opinions on the kinds of poverty the rest of the world is facing, you’ll see that our food and “product” habits are incredibly toxic.
Why do we import foods we don’t need? (Why can we buy citrus in any state, all year round? Why can someone in New England find coconuts in any large store? Why is buying “local” the new trend when it used to be “OMG it’s IMPORTED”, like back in the old days when Chinese tea and West Indies sugar was a luxury?)
Why do we think we don’t have time for food? (Are our lives that incorrectly prioritized that we think gardening is pleasure or a hobby? Why has an urban lifestyle become normal when it’s not sustainable? Why do we accept eating at a chain restaurant as being a normal habit – when we have no idea what’s in our food?)
Why are we okay with GMOs? (Why do we let the industry feed us fruit, for example, that has been grown larger, sweeter, and sprayed a prettier color? Why do we think it’s normal to eat food that has been made cheaper and/or artificially?)
Why are we okay with supporting certain industries? (Why is it radical to say you don’t want to eat a certain thing or you want to buy only US-made stuff? Why do people just turn a blind eye to industrialized food and working conditions that they support when buying certain foods? Is it because it’s more convenient to ignore? When we already live this life of insane convenience?)
Why do we accept chemicals in our food and products? (Why do we accept food companies who fight labeling? Why do we think it’s normal to use pesticides which clearly are toxic enough to kill small organism and which have been proven to accumulate in the environment and in our own bodies? Why do we think natural remedies are the “alternative” solutions when in fact they are the origins of medicine and the purest, most ancient forms of healing? Why do we buy lotions and use shampoos that have chemicals that absorb directly into our bloodstreams and don’t think anything of it? Why do we think it’s normal – or even necessary – to bathe every day and dry out our skin and hair just to satisfy some social construct or modern idea of acceptable cleanliness?)
In sum, myself, my peers, and surely most of you reading this are accepting things that shouldn’t be acceptable, are living lives completely skewed and without second-guessing our concepts of normalcy. Truly take a moment to think about these things, about the class I taught and views on “abundance vs. scarcity”. Think about what a “normal” human life actually should be, normal meaning one without any conveniences – one that would seem incredibly “tribal” to the modern eye. Use that as a baseline. It really changes your perspective on EVERYTHING you do in your life. At least it does for me!