This week has been a refreshing one. On Sunday night I decided to take some time away from Facebook, and really connect with my present surroundings. Today is my fifth consecutive day without Facebook, and it’s been very relieving.
While I do love keeping in touch with friends and participating in internet culture, what I am truly glad for is the escape from the constant political dribble on Facebook. It was getting overbearing. Since I still jump online from time to time, I still see it, but certainly not as often as not as obnoxiously.
What political conversations among us common citizens feel like sometimes is this:
There is plenty of zeal, and even some contention. Thank God for that, because it’s the fact that we can express that zeal and contention that make us the United States of friggin’ America. But once the reporter prods her, asking her what she means by “communist” it’s clear that she doesn’t exactly know. She dodges the question.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this recently. I’ve heard criticism about socialism, fascism, capitalism, and most of it from people who don’t even know what those terms and ideologies mean. (Just a side note, it’s impossible for Obama to be a socialist, a communist, and a fascist all at the same time. And even if he was, once again, this is the US of A, and he can be one if he wants to be.)
This discussion of different economic systems and government structures is even more relevant for me right now, because in my MSW program we’ve been studying the economic and political structures of the last 100 years. We’ve been identifying what they truly are, how they’ve been played out in history, and how no one ideology really has a monopoly on virtue, morals, or freedom. People might be surprised to know that the evolution back into a completely unregulated market (laissez-faire) at the end of the 1970s correlates with the unprecedented government spending (mostly during Reagan’s two terms) as well as increased economic uncertainty. Before this time, the US supported a government-regulated market (Keynesian), the same system that lifted the US out of the great depression and is believed to be the source of what we like to believe was the “golden era” of US economics, the 1950s. But many lay people don’t know that, and they don’t seem to realize that our nation has been a shifting and evolving nation from day 1.
All that considered, something else actually got under my skin this week as I was studying for class and keeping up with politics. Much of the focus so far in my social work courses has been on economics. We discuss the current welfare system, the way social class plays into that, and whether or not the “free” market is really free at all. We talk about the disadvantages of birth, of race, of socioeconomic status. At the root of it all, we discuss privilege, power, and oppression.
All of that is legitimate. These things need to be discussed, to be addressed, and wrongs need to be righted, even the wrongs inherent in our implicit assumptions. But there’s still something we’re missing.
One option of fixing the economic inequality is to evenly distribute the wealth. Socialism. Even communism. But even if we did, we still would have missed the point. And the point is that the real threat to the happiness of our citizens isn’t economic inequality. It’s materialism.
Inherent in every part of these economic discussions is the underlying assumption that fixing the money issues will fix all the other issues. There’s the belief that if we can manipulate the economy, we can manipulate the problems. Materialism is built into our government, our economy (which might seem like a ‘duh’ statement, but it’s not), our interactions with one another, and even more dangerously it’s built into our emotional/psychological/spiritual relationship with ourselves.
The belief that if we can just have more, then we’ll be happy, is what is truly deceiving us. Just take a look around. We are a consumer society, and as Americans we are the richest people on earth. We have more than any nation has ever had. We ARE the 1%! But that’s not enough. We need to look better, have newer clothes, go partying in Vegas once a month, vacation in the Bahamas, drive a Lamborghini, have the newest iphone/ipad/ipod… and the list goes on and on. Even the more modest of us have lists like that (albeit simpler “less worldly” lists). But the harsh fact is that the reality of us having three square meals a day puts us above the majority of humans on this planet. We HAVE it all. The question isn’t “how can we all ‘have’ fairly/equally?” It’s “how can we live a fulfilling life?”
With these thoughts in mind I turned on a documentary the other night called “The Human Experience.” It’s the experience of two brothers who go on three endeavors to understand what it is to be human. The first is living homeless on the streets of New York during the coldest week of the year. They enter the homeless community and meet the people who have been tossed aside by the system so many of us are fighting to preserve. But through their struggles, they find hope. One man told them “I’ve lost everything, but I’m still alive. I should have died so many times. I should have gotten AIDS, but I didn’t. I’m still alive, so God has something for me to do.”
The second experience is volunteering in a children’s hospital/orphanage in Peru. Most of these children have some sort of malady or deformity, but the remarkable thing to me was not any physical oddity, it was the fact that they were all smiling. There was light in their eyes. They found such joy in the smallest things. There was no worrying about “getting” or “having.” It was beautiful. What was even more beautiful was seeing how these children were changing these brothers. You could see them losing their materialism.
The final experience was traveling to Ghana, and trekking to a leper colony. They entered the country and saw the sheer poverty everywhere. But once again, there were smiles. They visited a hospital for people dying of AIDS. The mother of one of the fellow NY-ers who traveled with them had died of AIDS, and so this was difficult. There weren’t as many smiles here, but there was something palpable. One man told the camera “Every morning I thank God, because he chose to wake me up one more day. It must mean he has some reason for me to be alive.”
They sat and spoke with a woman who was dying. Her face was glum and there was sorrow in her eyes. The boy who had lost his mother to AIDS asked her “if there was one thing you could tell your children before you die, what would it be?”
She thought for a moment. “If you live God’s principles,” she said, “he will prosper you.”
They trekked into the leper colony, where extremities were falling off, skin was decaying, eyes were decomposing. These people were dying alive. They told about how they’d been rejected by their families and villages, and how much they’d lost. “But I am happy today,” one man told the filmmakers, “because you are here to listen, and because you are my brother.”
As the film concluded, I wept. These people, in all three situations, have almost nothing materially. Yet they have something that many of us in the prosperous west seem to be struggling for. How ironic that we have it all, yet we are the ones getting so caught up in our daily routine of “surviving” that we miss life all together.
For a moment, I was able to truly see that the only thing we truly own in this life is ourselves. Everything else is excess. Joy is not found in acquiring. Physically we have everything we need for joy contained within us. We must stop trying to find joy, and be joyful. We must stop seeking for connection, and connect. We must stop waiting to live, and just live.
Within me I seemed to feel the words: “This world was never for you to own.”
So if social work is only going to focus on economic equality, then it misses the point. If politics is only going to be about power and ideological war, then we’ve missed the point. If religion is only going to be about proving we’re right while others are wrong, we’ve missed the point.
The point is that we are here to connect, to unite with others, to laugh and cry and love. We are here to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those that mourn. None of this requires material goods. This is about people, and about being with them.
Because of this, I’m glad I shut down Facebook. I don’t want to live online. I want to live here, now. It’s going to take time to wean me off my materialistic mindset, but it will be worth it. To close, I want to post a quote by the Dalai Lama:
Let us live.