Saturday, January 06, 2007

Are you changed?

It has been a long spell since I've written much in the blog.

Perhaps I'm reluctant to share the transient thoughts and emotions that have made the past eight months a turbulent period. Reluctant to share confusion. (Only when things are ordered and "under control" is it comfortable to raise one’s voice.)

People have remarked that my journey through the Americas must have changed me. It's difficult to tell, really. It awakened something, certainly. But changed? I'm not so sure. Change, in any positive sense, comes only from personal effort. It doesn't just happen. Entropy "happens". That's not to say change will not come from the experience. It's up to me, I think.

In Latin America, I was continually confronted by the contrast between "haves" (mainly Americans and Europeans, the lifestyle to which I am accustomed) and "have-nots" (most of the rest of the World.)

As an American traveling in so-called Third World Nations, there was an expectation (more within than without, I suspect) that I had something to bring to them, to share, to teach. To demonstrate that, despite appearances, Americans really do care.

Instead, I returned confused. Wasn't it they who were teaching me? In the way they could have so little yet still smile, laugh, and share, weren't they teaching me to be satisfied with less? Weren’t they teaching humility? Wordlessly, they were teaching me that, as an American, I carry a special burden. ("You have so much. So much power and influence in the World. So many things. Why does America behave so badly?")

We have much, but don't truly appreciate it. How often do we express gratitude that we, as a nation, are more fortunate than most? Moreover, we fail to realize that our wealth and prosperity is a product not only of our own industry, but that of all nations in commerce with this country.

***

Anyone who travels abroad must come to understand that the similarity between nations and peoples trumps the differences. This is the inevitable conclusion of my journey. We are one people. The human race.

Those who seek to exploit differences for their personal gain and empowerment are criminals. In short, we are all average. And, as I like to say, that's not so bad.

***

The lessons of my journey quietly work their way into my life. Once your sleep has been disturbed, there is no going back.

Over the years, I've avoided accumulating "things". There's something very attractive about traveling lightly through this life. (Perhaps that's one of the more positive lessons of the military experience: you can actually live out of a small duffel bag or locker.)

I don't own a single piece of furniture, not even a bed, but still I feel I have "too much". (Certainly far more than most people on this planet.)

But in America, you "must" own a home (or two), the larger the better, with furnishings and entertainment centers, multiple cars in the garage, maybe even a boat or motorhome, take regular vacations, have the appropriate clothing and equipment for a myriad seasonal activities. We like being equipped for every contingency, every labor-saving convenience within reach.

Failure to wholeheartedly embrace this imperative is un-American and unacceptable. To renounce this lifestyle is heresy. One who does is considered an “under-achiever”, a failure, a "nutcase". (Others may not judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves.)

Of course, we all need "basic" creature comforts. (Basic being defined by the culture in which we find ourselves.) And I certainly appreciate and enjoy the trappings of our affluent society. But, more than ever, it is clear most of these things are unnecessary. And like most Americans, I'm oblivious of the true cost to the human race of our overindulgence.

The challenge, perhaps even mandate for travelers upon their return is to become a moderating influence for those around them.

America must moderate it's negative impacts in this World: its cancerous militarism, its "free-trade obsession" and prodigious consumption, with its inseparable pollution and resource depletion.

No other nation commands the attention America enjoys. No nation has such an opportunity to lead by example. And ultimately America is nothing but the collective expression of its citizens.

And so it comes back to individual responsibility. Individual "activism" (though many might find that term repelling.)

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