You can suffer for fashion. You can suffer for beauty. You can suffer for art. You can suffer to do good. You can suffer for your religion. You can suffer for a cause.
Just as shoving your feet into painful shoes or having cosmetic surgery may seem silly to one, giving up worldly comforts or personal desires to stand for a cause may seem ridiculous to another. For whatever you choose to suffer, it does not automatically make you more attractive, other-worldly, superior, above the trivial, or noble. Depending on your chosen affliction, it may just make you uncomfortable, out of place, bored or hungry. You might have earned “bragging rights” but if you use them, are you a fraud?
My next three posts will be loosely inspired by people believing otherwise.
About three years ago, I was living at a study center in Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy. During a field trip to Rome, our professor, who was socially aware and wanted all of us over-privileged brats to know it, saw fit to take us into a Kazakhstan refugee camp. It was a literal fortress of poverty, with filthy stone walls on the perimeter and stick shacks with fabric roofs along one wall. We were NOT welcome there. Our professor, Peter, went over to speak to a group of men “greeting” us at the entry portal. They stood, a solid line of defense, and supposedly invited us to “have tea” but Peter hastily ushered us out of the camp without looking back. If he’d told us what they really said, I’m sure it would have destroyed his prized teaching moment.
Although I’ve seen worse living situations in my travels, witnessing this environment on the outskirts of a city known for no such thing was shocking. I understand how no one can surface from having seen impoverished conditions untouched, but back at the study center a small group of students were discussing such inequality and I was appalled at their attitude. They spoke of how guilty we should feel with our sturdy roofs and running water, even though they were the ones complaining the several times our water supply became unusable and we had to improvise showers and flush toilets with buckets. Ideas were tossed around that we should live as the refugees do so as to promote “community with them”. What does that even mean? Were they really just vapidly regurgitating buzz phrases?
Once, these same students were feeling a bit homesick and they marveled at the decadence of our food choices in America. “In Italy, a ham sandwich is pretty much just that: ham sandwiched between baguette slices, maybe with cheese. Sure they taste great, but there just aren’t the options available at sub shops.” They went on to talk about how when they got home, they probably wouldn’t be able to order food without thinking of how lucky they were to have so many options. Newsflash: Italy has tomatoes. If they wanted to provide vegetables and other dressings for the otherwise bare sandwiches, they would. It’s just cultural that they don’t. Italians are extremely proud of their food and it takes research to find the non-Italian cuisine in town. Sure there wasn’t a lot of variety when it came to eating in that country, but a ham sandwich from an American sub shop is not the epitome of excess.
From time to time, I would hear them discuss the triviality of American life and how they were going to be better than that when they came back to the states. They were worldly, alert, and European now. I couldn’t help but feel their new-found conscience was excruciatingly unaware.
People live worse off and it is not by choice. I’m pretty sure someone living in rural South America would never obnoxiously say, “Well I slept in a thatched hut with spiders and ate only beans the entire weekend…what did you do?” They would love to have the luxury of their own car, a clean pillow top bed, climate controlled homes, and all you can eat prime rib in Vegas. We are not evil. We are the end game, the goal of developing nations. You can argue that less is more and simpler is better, which may as well be true, but the point of humanitarian work/aid is usually to elevate the standard of living and promote progress.
These well-meaning students probably landed back in the states and couldn’t get in a car without thinking about how much better of a person they were in Europe for using public transport and how it was going to kill them to be so environmentally irresponsible. Having lived a different lifestyle for a period of time and experienced its benefits does not mean you should scorn your thoroughly American life. It’s also likely they couldn’t eat at a Chili’s without shaming themselves first for not eating local. A man on my street owns a good portion of the sonic drive ins in Texas and Oklahoma, so whenever the carhop delivers my drink, I’m supporting my own neighbor that bought girl scout cookies from me when I was seven, not to mention all the people he employs. Now that’s community. “You’re missing the point of ‘eating local’ Shanna,” you say.