When I get on Skype with Michelle and I’m wearing my winter hat, I tell her I’m having a bad hair day. To which she replies, “You don’t have the heat on again, do you? If you don’t turn it on, I’m going to tell your husband.”
But if he’s out to sea, why would I want to heat the entire house for me–just one person? Especially when I’m holed up in one room under a comforter typing away, anyway.
I do realize how extreme I am in my thinking. But, you know, there is a reason for all that.
First off, extremely conservative, non-wasteful parents raised me. Just as Polishmomphotographer proves–Whatever is instilled in you as a child will remain with you your entire life. Sure, you may come to your own conclusions and discover new truths, but those things you were told as a child hang on tightly, period. You keep the ones that are worthy. And as you discard the ones that don’t benefit you anymore, a thread of guilt wraps itself around your wrist, just as you let it go.
But, for me, what it comes down to is—what do I deserve?
1. Traveling through dirt-poor villages in Egypt at the age of 19 opened my eyes to what I had, and what others did not. The people who had the least shared the most with me—and happily— offering me food and shelter while they struggled to feed their family of nine. I often compare the border of Israel and Egypt with the Mexican/Texas border. Crossing a line in the dirt and you’re in a whole other world. That year and a half traveling on my own throughout Europe, and the Middle East taught me what I could do without, whom I could trust, how to budget and what I truly needed. I worked odd jobs. When I had enough money, I moved on to the next country.
2. The poverty and beauty I witnessed the year I spent traveling and teaching English in Brazil at the age of 21 changed me forever. Alone, with no “school program” to back me up, I’d never been poorer. In order to eat and have a place to sleep, I had to trust complete strangers. It was the most humiliating, and important experience of my life.
3. After serving in the military and witnessing shocking, excessive amounts of fiscal waste, I viewed things through different eyes.
4. Repeatedly being made fun of for recycling in the military jolted me into the reality of an ignorant and wasteful society that didn’t care about tomorrow. I realized they weren’t brought up like me. It was their lack of caring I found the most disturbing.
5. Returning to Brazil for another year in 2006 on a scholarship for a Social Justice program exposed me further. I think daily of the farmers who lived in houses made of sticks, covered in black plastic garbage bags who brewed and offered me tea. Or the family I lived with for a week in the Amazon Rain Forest who sustained themselves 98% from the forest.
6. When I graduated college at 32, I’d saved up enough money (plus a gift from my dad) to spend two months in Africa. It wasn’t only the slums of South Africa or the damp mud/straw houses in Botswana that sang out to me, “Look what you take advantage of every day. While you have central heating, we warm ourselves next to the fire and breathe in the black smoke.” It was everything. Every single thing. Every single person I met.
7. Landing in D.C. to work for our government again, I couldn’t believe the fiscal waste was just as out of control as when I served in the military. Nothing had changed. There was zero improvement. I was the one who had changed.
The world is a convenient, accessible place compared to what it was only a century ago. Traveling abroad and discovering a life different from your own isn’t so difficult anymore. Documentaries and news channels expose us daily to the difference between “the haves” and the “have nots.” But it’s easy to grow numb, to not worry about it. To think—Gosh, I’m just one person. How can I change the world?
But every time I don’t turn the water off while I’m soaping up, or when I notice someone running the water while they brush their teeth, I think of the beautiful African ladies in Namibia who balanced buckets on their heads as they walked miles to fetch water daily. I think how we take advantage of being able to turn a knob, and there it is—flowing clean and abundant.
Every time I leave the light on in the back room, rather than turn it off when I exit, I remember the homemade candles the Amazonian fishermen burned in their wooden hut because electricity didn’t exist in their village.
Every time I turn up the heat and pull on a short-sleeve t-shirt instead of layering with thermals, I think of the homeless woman in Spain who sat in front of the cathedral in Madrid, begging in the middle of winter, her fingers, ice-cold. I gave her my lunch once and her smile brought me temporary joy. The smile faded as I realized I wasn’t solving the problem. She’d be hungry again the following day.
What makes me think I deserve to run the water, blast my heat and leave all the lights on in the house–simply because I can? Simply because I have the resources?
I don’t. I don’t deserve to. And I don’t have the resources. I might have them right now. But at the rate we’re reproducing in this big, blue world, how fast will they run out? And my carbon footprint? All those planes I caught exposing me and educating me with international travel? Will I ever be able to balance that out?
I’m one person. I can’t make a dent on my own. But if we all cut back just a little. If our government passed legislation that banned the use of plastic bags in the grocery stores and required businesses to turn out all lights in all buildings at the end of a work day, imagine how much bigger of a dent we might produce.
Yes, I realize that keeping my heat low or even off, and doing all the extreme things I ritually perform won’t affect farmers in Egypt or the water-toting ladies in Namibia or the family I visited in the Amazon.
But, damn it. It has to do something. If only release the guilt from those beautiful memories.
But, it doesn’t. And I lay there at night with my eyes wide open, thinking… what else can I do? How can I make a REAL difference?
- How the Amazon rainforest is being saved (bbc.co.uk)
- Amazon Rainforest Loss At Lowest In 23 Years, Brazil Says (huffingtonpost.com)
- Indigenous Amazonian Child Burned to Death by Loggers (treehugger.com)
- Black Radicals need to be more progressive – by Markus Munenge (moorbey.wordpress.com)
- Travel trends shifting towards Egypt for 2011 | British Airways – Travel Industry News (travelnews.britishairways.com)