When I was a child, I remember driving through parts of Jacksonville where black people lived in wooden shacks on cinderblocks. It made me sad for them. Little did I know that they weren’t necessarily sad themselves. Yet, it didn’t feel right that people in general had to live like that. We weren’t rich. In fact, we lived in a black neighborhood for a while when my mother was single with two children. But later, after she remarried and we moved to the insulation of the suburbs, whenever I’d see poor people, a feeling of inequity would sweep over me. Why did people have to be poor? Was it their fault that they were born into poverty? Or born black? Or born in Haiti instead of Boston? How was I supposed to just accept that when I laid in my little bedroom at night with Charlie’s Angels pictures taped to warm sheetrock walls, somewhere out there children my age were laying in drafty rooms with holes in the floor?
It didn’t make sense to me then. It still doesn’t. How can we be a great nation if we allow our citizens to live in poverty? How can we be a great nation if we reward only a select few with the means to quality education and healthcare? I don’t have the official numbers on how many Americans live at or below the poverty level, but it sure feels like those numbers are expanding. And it feels wrong. And I’m sorry, but the answer is not simply ‘work harder.’
Last week I came across this Facebook update that a friend had liked:
Today I read a story about an anthropologist who proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the kids that who ever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run, they all took each others hands and ran together – and then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that as one could have had all the fruits for himself they said, “Ubuntu.” And asked him how any one can be happy if all the other ones are sad?
UBUNTU in the Xhosa culture means: “I am because we are.”
What happens to us as we grow older in this land of opportunity? What kind of calloused exterior grows over our hearts? At what point do the blinders grow out of our temples to keep us focused exclusively on that which we desire, individually–providing us with justification for the gulf between rich and poor? Between sharing and coveting? Between caring and indifference?
How do we get back to serving each other? And can the United States lead the way, or is our culture destined for failure because of our embedded competitive nature that encourages and rewards those who keep a foot on the throat of the competition–creating a divide in prosperity that we celebrate as some mutated form of success?
Or, perhaps children must lead the way. And if so, then we must begin to raise them selflessly, so that they can raise the rest of us out of this mess.