How can we learn to care when we do not feel?
by Michael R
We “Americans” are not “bad.” It is almost de rigueur that this be said at the outset, otherwise folks will simply think one is on a rant. But let’s think about something. I recently read about extremes in water consumption where people who live in places like Paradise Valley or Scottsdale, Arizona use as much as 10,000 gallons of water a month. (Get out your last water bill and see what your consumption is by comparison.)
On the other hand, there are currently 150,000,000 city dwellers in Africa and Asia that have less than 26 gallons a day for all their water needs, bathing, drinking, etc. Furthermore, the article said that by 2050 there would be one billion people in this situation.
For us who live in the United States where water taps in our houses and outside represent an unending supply of water, it is simply impossible to imagine what it means not to have an endless supply of H2O. This is all we know and to live with 26 gallons a day, or double or triple that lies beyond not only our imagination, but beyond our feelings.
Had I not lived in Managua, Nicaragua, I could not have begun to understand either. But in Managua we often had regular losses of water service. Our home looks normal, a modest, modern “bungalow,” ironically a word that comes from the emblematic country–once a part of India but now named Bangladesh–synonymous with poverty. Ironically, too, with global climatic changes and rises in the sea level, Bangladesh will experience increased flooding, a phenomenon that this country of 160,000,000 already suffers.
In Managua, when we did have water, the pressure was nothing like in the United States. The first time I went out to wash our old car, it was nearly impossible because of the dribble of water that came out of the hose. My mother and father-in-law live in a section of Managua where there is no water service on a daily basis; they had water only at night. When my wife and I visited the United States, especially in the cold winter, a hot morning shower under a torrent of water was one of the delights of our visit. I might simply add that in general there are few hot water tanks in Nicaragua, water is at whatever temperature comes out of the tap which even in a tropical climate still made for an uncomfortable, cold shower.
Once when I was away for a week on a work trip, my wife had a small electrical device installed on the shower head that warmed the water a bit and made showering by comparison a pleasure. By this description I can say that I can imagine somewhat having only 26 gallons of water a day.
At the present time we are doing research and working in the U.S. on the theme of Central American immigration and often I am nearly overwhelmed at the abundance of things that we “Americans” have and experience every day, almost to the point of taking them for granted, but we do not take them for granted.
When I arrived at the first day of classes at the college where I am presently teaching and walked into the classroom I experienced culture shock. The classroom was perfectly air conditioned, perfectly clean, with chalk boards and chalk and white boards and markers. But more than this, each classroom had a computer and projector and internet connection. In Managua I was the only teacher in the English department that would carry a small computer to school and, if I was lucky, be able to reserve the single projector in the department to use in a graduate class that I taught on Saturdays. (The rest of the week I taught under-graduate classes in classrooms where there would be no projector at all.) Of course, I could only use the projector if there was electricity, a service that was never guaranteed.
By contrast, I never need worry about cuts in water or electricity at the college in the U.S. We can talk about the world, we can cite statistics like the ones at the outset of this article, but such discussions are at best theoretical even if we seem to know what we are talking about and students have a sense of compassion and caring, not always a given. I can state that most of the world lives in conditions that if we were to live equally, we would consider ourselves poor and in the midst of tremendous hardship, a hardship we would do almost anything to escape. Although my wife, who is Nicaraguan, when we are having thoughtful conversations, reminds me that “poverty” in Managua and other places is not the same as “poverty” in the U.S. where one can be “working poor” and still have enough food to eat to sustain or gain weight and usually a roof over one’s head with multiple rooms to abide in. She says this with no criticism or envy, just as a historian’s and social scientist’s fact. I know she is right.
This matter of imagining or feeling what life is like for most of the world’s people is an immense issue. This is not, however, simply a matter of being a good person and caring about others. We in the United States with, perhaps, 4% of the world’s population consumes between 25% and 30% of the world’s oil. Our way of life depends upon such massive consumption. Oil not only drives our cars, generates electricity, makes unending flows of water possible but also is the basis of every plastic object we have in our lives, and we have a lot of plastic in our lives!
In addition to my regular teaching duties, I was teaching a class yesterday on Saturday for a group of adults. It is a free, obviously voluntary, Spanish class for caring adults in a local Unitarian-Universalist Church. These are truly compassionate, interested people, they are good to be with and working with them is a genuine pleasure. It is as close to “real” learning as one can get, perhaps. No degrees, no certificates, no monetary incentives, just a small group of people gathering on Saturday mornings for some weeks trying to understand some things.
All but three of the students are, let’s call them “mature” (although the younger three are in their 20’s and 30’s) and all could pretty much be doing other things on a Saturday morning. The class was originally planned for a month but has been extended to two months and one new student said she was going to lobby for more classes.
All classes have exams, so I gave a 13 question “social justice quiz” that a human rights attorney named Bill Quigley created and which can be found at several web sites. This experience was a lesson in discovery about our own country and how it spends its resources compared to the world. My personal view is that in order to learn and understand another language it is essential to attempt to understand the history and culture that is part of the area where that language is dominant (and this includes understanding one’s own country and culture). Spanish is a challenge in this sense because it is a language that extends over a vast continent and the Caribbean as well as Spain, and in some parts of Africa.
Near the end of the class, and they are great to work with in every regard, I said that all of us live comfortable lives, and except for the three younger ones, probably have pretty dependable sources of income, including social security, pensions, savings. (One of the questions on the test pointed out that the average net worth of African-Americans in the U.S. is $2,200 while the average net worth of whites is $97,000. This came as quite a shock even to this caring, relatively socially-conscious group.)
How can we possibly understand, I asked, how others in the world live if we have such daily comfort and participate normally in a daily life of massive consumption? There was only thoughtful silence from this articulate group. I should add that when I teach Spanish I do not present Latin America as a poor, economically deprived region. I try to illustrate the riches of its cultural life, family and neighborhood relations, wisdom, adaptability, and resilience in the face of challenge. (Nor do I attempt to idealize Latin Americans as somehow morally superior because of their complex and often tragic history.) They must, if they are to understand the area where Spanish is mostly spoke, feel also respect and admiration in order to really learn the language and find some common ground for genuine mutual communication and discovery.
I do not avoid the tough issues of the region, nor do I leave out the immense and often tragic role of the United States in this area. Nicaragua alone, and it is not alone in this, suffered 42 years of authoritarian and generally brutal government under a father and two sons named Somoza were allies of the U.S. And, when a popular revolution sent the last Somoza into exile in 1979, he fled to Miami. Tragically, the U.S. sponsored a nearly decade-long counter-revolution during the Reagan years that left the country devastated and largely in ruin after a brief period of progressive, nearly miraculous reform.
If it needs to be said, as at the outset of this article, I love the country I was born in and value its accomplishments. Yet, how are we to understand the world upon which we have such a tremendous impact when we live in such relative comfort, wealth, and power. It is power to be able to turn on a light switch, confident that we will have light. It is power to turn on a water tap and know that there will be water. It is power to go to even a discount supermarket, as my wife and I do, and have a surfeit of things to choose from. It is power to lie down on a soft mattress at night and know that we can sleep until morning mostly in safety. And while in the city I am now in, few people use public buses, they exist with new buses, comfortable seats, always plenty available, and air conditioning. In the two Latin American countries that I have lived in there are buses, multitudes use them and it is quite usual that one will be standing the whole way (whether it be for half an hour or an hour often) instead of sitting due to the crush of passengers that depend on public transportation and per person these buses use only small amounts of petroleum to move most of the population. (In this U.S. town it is not unusual to find only two or three, sometimes just one, on a whole bus, while in Latin America there may be 40 or more.)
Until we in the U.S. cannot simply read statistics about the world but actually feel what it means to live in a different way, our participation and contribution to the betterment of humanity will be, to say the least, minimal, inadequate, and mostly futile. I have learned in my life that, as challenging as it is to consider, compassion really only develops from some tragic loss in our own lives that awakens us to the deeper immaterial and material needs of ourselves and others. And, when I speak of “needs,” I am not referring to the luxurious and mostly taken-for-granted grandeur of being able to flip a light switch or to turn on a faucet without thought of what these simple actions really mean about power and wealth in the world.