Often, it seems like our (America's) role in the world, is to make sweeping and grand moral judgements on all that is right and wrong. Misplaced and unasked for at best, these judgments have come to define the way we interact with certain populations. My friend Frank asked me yesterday what book, if any, has completely altered the way that I look at the world. There have been a few, and probably much more than a few, if my brain was more capable of holding all the words I've read, but I immediately thought of the one high school class that did just that. I had a high school teacher who thought and taught in a way I had never experienced before. He taught through unraveling long, revealing, and incredible stories. Mostly from his own life. He was and is an incredible story-teller. He drew his large classes of teenagers into a different world each time they entered his classroom. He painted intense and fierce portraits of previous students, of the people he had encountered when working in an African country during war. More to the point, he introduced to us pimply and vulnerable 16 year-olds the meaning and difference between cultural absolutism and cultural relativism. It forced me to recognize the strong presence of absolutism and black and white judgments in my own culture-at an age when it's rather easy to make sweeping generalizations about what's wrong.
To make a sweeping, not-always true generalization myself, I believe much of America's nearest and dearest values to originate from a precise and puritanical view on the world. We are nearly unmet in this regard, by any other country or culture! We learn these things at early ages and they exist, humming along our bloodstreams, for our entire lives if they go unchecked. Drugs are bad. Criminals are bad. Poor people are lazy. So and so country is uneducated and backwards. Crazy people are crazy. Having sex is bad, unless you are married. There are too many to recall.
I've been thinking about this for two reasons. The first is prompted by our sudden attention to mental illness and drug abuse, fueled momentarily by Hoffman's dead by overdose. The second is a poster about Africa I saw the other day when walking through the blindingly cold streets of Minneapolis, in a hurry to get to a meeting. These two things are deeply interconnected to our puritanical and absolutist view on the world.
This poster I saw showed a picture of a sad-looking bedraggled young girl and was clearly advertising a mission or a non-profit. The text sternly exhorted passerbys to, "Stop the trade of cows for young girls in Sub-Saharan Africa!" by supporting the nonprofit. Right, probably to many people in the world, this idea of trading livestock for young women seems morally bankrupt and shady. Right up there with genitalia mutilation. The commodification of people being something we absolutely can't stand and watch happen. When I saw this advertisement, I immediately started laughing. I had spent two years living in a rural ugandan village where this custom of bride price is still alive and widely practiced. When two people get married, the man's family has to give a bride price to the woman's family, usually composed of some amount of goats or cows if lucky. I routinely experienced groups of men yelling to me, "How many cows are you?" as I biked or walked past them. It was a common topic of conversation and even something I laughed over with colleagues, as we sat under the mango tree and swapped stories about the seemingly bizarre bits of our cultures. This tradition has been around probably for centuries, and although it may not reflect my own personal views on women's rights and romantic love and marriage and relationships, it's part of their culture and it's around for a reason. What to us is a massive human rights violation is simply a rite of passage for a culture. Where our reflex is to stop these traditions, what we really need is to understand them. Culture is gigantic. We would serve ourselves and others better if we took the time to understand culture rather than fight against it. We are so absolute in our world view that we become evangelical and blind to cultures different than our own.
Related to this, is our view on mental illness and drug addiction. We build towering walls that box 'those people' off from the rest of us so that we can look down at them and hurl judgments from a safe distance. The bricks of these walls created from birth from statements like "drugs are bad." "drug addicts are unworthy and criminal." "Suicide is selfish." etc etc. The separation and othering is key, because it creates that safe distance, far from our families and ourselves, when in reality we are all probably just a few short steps or several giant leaps or so many thoughts away from mental illness or addiction. Our problem is our obsession with holiness, pureness. We demonize entire groups of people who have diseases and problems and we label them as "drug addicts, criminals, crazy." We are repulsed by humanity instead of being empathetic.
I for one want nothing to do with the celebration of purity or lily-white behavior. I want nothing to do with the single lens we are given at birth, the one that helps us distinguish 'good', 'bad', 'us', and 'them'. I don't want to be sold for 7 cows, but I sure as hell don't believe in our right to label this tradition as evil.
Someone has said this all better than me. My mentor has been very closely affected by mental illness and addiction in her life. She has lost both her partner and her mother to these diseases. The other day, prompted by Hoffman's death, she sat down and wrote this:
The source said, "Why is someone with so much to lose willing to take
this chance. The line between genius and madness is very thin." I'm
thinking the line between "willing" and "madness" is very thin.
Depression addiction and cancer are diseases-indeed they are not all the
same and no one of them ravages each person with equality or fairness.
They can all be exacerbated and be in remission-so to speak. Not even
all cancers are the same - even all cancers in the originating in the
same place in the body, made up of identical cells and
having the same stage are the same. Some will be cured some will
go into remission and some will die-even after receiving identical
treatments. They are not judged as human beings because of the course
their individual cancer takes, they are not failures because of weakness
or lack of character, they do not have death wishes.
Many diseases have ugly unappealing symptoms. There is not one addict
who doesn't lie and manipulate, regardless of the substance-liquor,
heroin, cocaine-all the same-one no better than the other, one not more
OK than another This is how they survive/live with their disease. They
all hurt those they love Do they like to be in altered states, well
yes perhaps for awhile but as their disease worsens, they just don't
want to be sick and I mean sick in unimaginable ways. They do not
choose to die as those who commit suicide to do not "choose" to die they
jump out the window from the burning building not because they are not
afraid to jump they are just less afraid than they are of burning to
death (this is an example from the book Infinite Jest) They have no
more of a choice or control over their bodily functions than a diabetic
has over theirs. Untreated depression and diabetes end in death and
even with treatment both diseases often take lives. No one is immune
from or too good to be plagued by any disease. P. S. Hofman
did not choose to die. He was not on a slippery slope rather an icy
mountain. He had "things to live for"-children. My mother had a
husband, 6 children-to whom she devoted her life and finally her long
yearned for grandchild. How could she have chosen to leave all of us?
She didn't choose and she wasn't leaving us she was leaving herself-she
was escaping the raging unrelenting painful uncontrollable fire. I was
recently asked by my 13 year old niece if people who commit suicide can
go to heaven. I behaved myself at the time, already having been judged
enough by my family, and refrained from saying-if one needs to question
that heaven must not be all the Christians have it cracked up to be. My
answer was-do people with diabetes get to go to heaven... There is not
well behaving addict but there are addicts who are wonderful smart
lovely loving warm artistic compassionate successful rich and poor.
They all steal in some form-some steal drugs some steal time and loyalty
and honesty from loved ones some rob people. I was an addict-a
"legitimate" one-never used street drugs, had prescriptions from
physicians-trained in the management of narcotic usage, suffering from
diagnosed chronic pain as well as a number of acute, known to
be painful, injuries and several significant surgeries.