Monday, July 02, 2007

toothpaste epiphany

I had an epiphany while brushing my teeth a few minutes ago. It's so simple and obvious that it hardly seems worth the breath to say it. The thought (I swear I've been mulling this over like a Zen koan for the past 15 minutes) is this: You can only see what is right in front of your face. It's so obvious as to sound painful, idiotic. Reminds me of that line from the play Anything Goes: "It's always darkest just before they turn on the lights."

What I mean is that you can't really know something fully until you experience it for yourself. And we can choose, to some degree, what we see and don't see (and here I intend "seeing" to encompass all types of personal experience). For instance: we can know - rationally - that a sunset is considered beautiful...but we don't know it as a part of ourselves until we actually see one in all its grandeur. We can "know" that disease exists, but we don't know it until people close to us (or we ourselves) fall ill. We can conceptualize what it is like to be incredibly wealthy or unacceptably poor...but we don't feel those things fully until we see them firsthand.

I guess what I'm getting at is that most of us living as middle-to-upper class Americans are comfortable. Yes, there are things that we want and need that we don't have. But generally speaking, we have the comfort of being able to choose. There are any number of things and experiences that we can't control in our lives...but there are a vast number that we can. And if it's true that "we can only see what is right in front of our faces," it seems to me that we have a moral obligation to place in our field of vision ideas and experiences that benefit others as much as (or more than) they benefit us. This is a tough idea in a country that prides itself on "the individual" and the personal gain inherent in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. But given our global position of relative wealth, choosing to put others' needs in front of our faces - voluntarily compromising our anesthetic blindness of unknowing, the comfort of our unwillingness to look closely - seems to be the only responsible course of action in order for us to evolve as humans.

(OK, I admit it: this post is an oblique reflection on the whole Africa experience. Still struggling with what to make of it and, more importantly, what to do with it...especially as I increasingly see it as a microcosm of the human condition. Feel free to call me out if you think this is all pseudo-philosophical overly-sentimental idealistic B.S....but be prepared to defend your position.)


lauren said...

mmmm... i look forward to seeing what you do with this too.

Sarah K. said...

Hey there. Just emerging from MY tiny world to catch up with yours--loved seeing pictures and hearing a bit about your trip. Coming back from the developing world is as much of a journey as the trip TO the developing world. (Remember--a trip to India is what made me become Episcopalian!) I think it's great that you're doing a lot of thinking about our role in the world. I look forward to hearing more.