Monday, August 30, 2010
I’ve spent a lot of my adult life standing in line at the grocery store. When my kids were little all I could think about was keeping them distracted so they wouldn’t realize they were surrounded by candy or remember that it was twenty minutes past their nap times. But now that I’m usually alone when I play the waiting game, I’ve learned so much more about my fellow shoppers.
When people are bored in public settings they will do almost anything to pass the time. More often than not, it will involve a cell phone and a conversation that I have no choice but to overhear. Usually the topic is not that exciting - whose aunt is having surgery and who’s picking junior up from ball practice. But I caught an extra interesting snippet of conversation last week, that made me ponder on its implications for days afterward.
An older gentleman was chatting away in the next lane, phone pressed to his ear, and this statement came out of his mouth. “Yeah, we’re cruising to Alaska this year. Every time we cruise in the tropics we have to walk past the really poor locals when we get off the ship and it makes me feel like some rich, entitled American. At least when we tour in Alaska we’re in the middle of other Americans… you know… who don’t live in poverty.”
I knew nothing about this guy. It would be easy to judge him, and reply (in my head, of course) “yeah, well, our ARE a rich American, if you can afford to go on cruises to the tropics, and you deserve to feel bad!” But that might not be a completely accurate way to analyze the situation. I knew nothing about this man. Maybe he scrimps and saves and works seven days a week all year. Maybe he shops for months for discounts on cruises and the only time he has to enjoy life is on those short stints at sea. Maybe he doesn’t think of himself as better than others, just more fortunate than them. I can kind of see his point.
I wrestle with this same question sometimes. There are so many things falling apart in this wide world we live in. So many causes I could get behind and believe in with all my heart. But where do you start? I’ve always said that ‘if I ever won the lottery, this is what I’d do’ and spelled out a handful of charities I’d donate to, that are close to my heart. But the statistics say I’ll never get to write those checks.
In the meantime I’m stuck in a world where the day to day responsibilities can keep me pretty distracted. It’s fairly easy to forget about the causes of the world when four kids need new shoes for school and in just a few hours six people will be showing up at our family dinner table, expecting there to be food on it. I wake up each morning and face an endless to do list. On the wall of my home office is the family calendar, marked up with events and activities I need to keep straight. There’s plenty to do. It’s almost enough to help me forget how lucky I am in the midst of my own chaos.
Then I hear a snippet of a news report on NPR, as I drive to work. Seventeen million people in Pakistan have been profoundly affected by floods in their country this week. Over 1,600 of them have died from these floods. Mamas and their babies, little children with bright faces like my own, are without food, clean water, or housing. They survive day to day on food thrown from aid trucks.
I can’t let myself dwell on their pain or I won’t be able to walk into work in a composed state. I have to put them in the back of my mind and move ahead.
On my break at work I pick up a book on the history of sanitation (okay, it’s called “The History of Poo” and I know my son will love it.) A simple statement in the first chapter catches my eye. “More than a third of the world’s population - 2.6 billion people - still has no decent place to go to the bathroom.” How can that be? When most Americans are annoyed if every gas station doesn’t supply this ‘simple’ luxury, how can more than a third of the other humans we share the planet with not have a clean, safe option at all?
That night, I’m snuggled in bed, waiting for sleep to come, and a news report catches my eye. I am alarmed to learn that albino people born in Tanzania are hunted, dismembered, and sometimes killed, because witch doctors believe their bones bring good luck and wealth. The ones who survive the attacks are left to live without arms and legs. The woman featured had to rely on her mother to feed and dress her, but the thing she missed most was simply hugging her son. All because she was born without pigment in her skin.
Suddenly I realize I’ve got the same problem as the cruise guy in the grocery store. Every day I’m walking through the reminders that I’m a pretty lucky person. I have a clean, dry place to raise my children. My cabinets are full of food. There are two (usually working) toilets in my house. I tie my shoes and hug my children tight, with hands and arms that work perfectly.
So I can take cruise guy’s approach and close my eyes. I can stop tuning into NPR and 20/20. I can skip over alarming sentences in books and articles. I can hunker down and pretend I don’t see. Or I can take a deep breath and take another approach.
Giving when I can. Teaching my children to be grateful. Digging deeper in my pockets when it’s time to give back. And always, always being thankful for the simple, good things in my life.