I’ve had a hard time writing lately — though not for lack of trying. I’ve started draft after well-intentioned draft but end up drifting hopelessly off course or paddling upstream so long that my brain hurts, I have little to show for my efforts and it’s time to pick up the kids.
Yesterday, while pressing my morning coffee, I finally realized why. My worldview — the foundation upon which I’ve built my thoughts, values and priorities — is in a vulnerable state of transformation. Illusions are dissolving quicker than they’re being replaced with anything half as easy, my comfort zones feel unwarranted, lavish and indulgent and the curtain of denial that once allowed for permissible passivity is now a tangled pile of weft threads at my feet.
My daily life is steeped in a question I thought I had long since answered: What is truly worthwhile?
(If you’re new here, this post might not make much sense without a frame of reference: In short, I’ve been visiting an impoverished village of indigenous Mayans in southern Mexico once a week since December. Doing so has shifted everything I thought I knew about poverty, oppression, necessity, even truth. You can read more about what I’ve been up to here.)
I suppose I didn’t fully understand the emotional contract I was signing when I asked for this perspective (because I did, indeed, ask for it), but my heart is now committed to a precarious balancing act between three entirely different cultures. They may as well be different planets for the energy I spend trying to make sense of them all…
Culture number one: The 500-year-old town we live in — which has refueled and fed and inspired me. It’s confirmed my longtime suspicion — that local living, walkability, a slower pace and more family time really do make for a healthier and more pleasant existence (and are well worth fighting to reclaim in the states). I now have a perspective on what the US must have been like before big business took over — with local hardware stores, bakeries, laundry ladies, key makers, shoe repair guys, fruit stands, meat markets, taco carts, seamstresses, milk stores (fresh cheese and yogurt made in-house, are you kidding?!) and every other imaginable family-owned business on any given city block. We walk or bike or take a two-dollar taxi anywhere we need to go. We pass our friends in the street, stop for brief greetings or deep conversation (well, not so deep in Spanish), and often duck into a local cafe for an impromptu Chiapan dark roast and a flaky French pastry just because we can. Here, we’ve learned that life can be even richer with less money. That obligations and conveniences are overrated. That the media is painting a wholly inaccurate picture about the majority of life in Mexico.
And yet, our time here is limited. We’ll likely move back home to the states — culture number two — sooner than later (can we squeeze in one more year?). Where we have access to better secondary education and jobs with benefits (and camping and fishing and live music and IPAs). Where speaking isn’t exhausting and depth of conversation isn’t limited by my weakness in the past subjunctive (though I hardly mind). Where our nearest and dearest people live including our eldest daughter who starts college in just one year. Where every imaginable thing is available to meet every imaginable want at the click of a mouse and like it or not, we’ll be supporting big box and big oil on a daily basis. Where weekends mean home improvements and soccer games and farmers markets and BBQs (every bit as scheduled as the weekdays), and where — if we somehow manage to maintain a slower pace than we lived before — we will be true anomalies. It isn’t better or worse, it’s just so very different.
A year ago I could have stopped the comparison there, or elaborated in flowery language about the beauty that exists in both places. But now there’s a third culture…
Culture number three: the Mayan village that I visit every week. Where I’ve seen more untreated birth defects, handicaps and scary-looking scars in three months than my whole life combined (Next time your life feels rough, imagine having been born without legs OR arms, sleeping on a wooden platform every night of your life and never having access to a shower.) Where the arrival of a new baby is not celebrated with fancy finger foods and pretty party cups and a good excuse to shop, but earnest prayer for a normal labor, humility in the all-too-familiar understanding of the alternative and the acceptance of yet another mouth to feed from already insufficient rations and dirty water. Where, heaven forbid (though it often permits) that something serious happen to a child, there’s about a 50/50 chance of finding a doctor (and good luck getting help at a hospital without any money). Where I’ve been offered newspaper, crumpled sheets of homework and a used up wide-ruled spiral notebook upon entering outhouses, but never once toilet paper.
Toilet paper is a luxury, my friends, and one that millions of good people do without. What does that say about the hundreds of thousands of other products that we think we need and invest our time working to acquire? What does it say about our priorities (as individuals, as organizations, as the most affluent, influential nation in the world)? How do I reconcile what I’m experiencing (as I wipe my arse with wide-ruled spiral-bound) with the image of thousands of supermarket isles neatly lined with value-packs of ultra-soft jumbo rolls? What does a healthy reaction look like?
I’m learning, slowly and clumsily how to guard my heart enough to hold all three worlds and still function without constant confusion. How to hop back and forth between homework and dishes, malnutrition and muddy shacks, Facebook statuses and my virtual contribution via the blogosphere. How to sit by Lucia’s fire and watch her prepare dinner with a machete by morning and plan our summer vacation at a lake house by night. How to make peace with disparity and friends with poverty but resist the default emotions of anger and cynicism.
Because you know what? There’s nothing revolutionary about anger or cynicism. They are cop-outs, they are easy roads — both well-paved and highly congested.
Here’s where you come in. Those of you who’ve been here before, I could really use your perspective. Those of you immersed in the world’s harsher realities and who choose not to turn your backs, how do you still your mind? Those of you with hearts for humanity, where do you draw the line between building enough callus to function and still honoring the sensitivity that made you care in the first place? Would someone please remind me which end is up again?
Maybe this is just what happens when you live a lifetime of relative ease and affluence — when the truth hits, it hits hard. Maybe this is my daily hardship — the price I pay for the gift of perspective. Every night I lie down on a mattress and curl up with my down comforter, I now pay a price. It costs me when I step in my steamy-hot shower. I pay in heartache. It is my new burden, and it’s got to be nearly as heavy as their loads of firewood.
I know that at the end of the day, beating myself up over social injustice is not going to solve a darn thing. I come from where I come from, the world has forever been wrought with tragedy and I’ve got to stay positive in order to fight the good fight (or better yet, to resist fighting altogether). And because of where I come from, I don’t have to help alleviate injustice, but I get to.
The one thing that keeps me hopeful in the face of all the hardship is that I also see the riches they possess. Among these is that they never have to question whether what they’re doing is worthwhile. Because there is no question that it’s worthwhile to collect wood to build a fire so your kids can eat. Or to hand wash the only shirt you own aside from the one you are wearing. Or to harvest the corn that will feed your family for the better part of the year. There’s no question that it’s worthwhile to tend the burns of your eldest daughter, or to mourn her untimely passing — as much the fault of injustice as infection.
You started this, Luch. You changed me forever. If and when I am able to replace the curtain you unraveled, I will reweave it loose and shear so as not to forget you.
“The world is just the way it is. The economy is just as it should be. The people who are behaving ‘badly’ in the world are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. You can process it in any way that you choose. If you’re filled with anger about all of those ‘problems,’ you are one more person who contributes to the pollution of anger.” Wayne Dyer