Monday, May 29, 2006

Paradox Now

Ah, what magic a long weekend can work for the soul. Leisure, something which many people lack in their lives for a variety of reasons, is such a necessity for mental and physical health. I can see that many of my own physical symptoms in the last few months have been absolutely stress related. As summer begins to dawn on the horizon, I spend more and more time outdoors, exercising and soaking up the sun. It's a time for healing, but also for deeper questions.

Watching a film last night, Paradise Now, I was reminded how many people in the world live in environments of constant stress and trauma, with leisure and stress relief something of an unattainable panacea. In the film, two Palestinians in the West Bank are chosen for a suicide mission in Tel Aviv, and each one must grapple with his conscience. Aside from the socio- and geo-political implications of the film, what I took away from it was a sense of how people all over the world live in situations in which respite from stress---often a level of stress which is trauma-producing---is often not an option. In Darfur, Palestine, Congo, Iraq---life is interwoven with the constant and relentless threat of death or dismemberment. On many of the streets of rural and urban America, hunger and poverty rule the day. How many American children go to bed hungry each night?

I'm struck by the paradox of reveling in my long weekend, recovering from the stress of full-time, well-paid work, replete with comprehensive health insurance and relative job security. Of course, it's a given that stress is relative, and there's no question that I deserve rest and renewal within my middle-class bubble. However, in the larger scheme of things amidst the general tumult of the world, my struggles to lose a few pounds, decide if we can afford having someone clean our house twice a month, or how long we can go on vacation this summer take on a somewhat anemic pallor. Clearly, perspective is key in this moment, and one must not lose sight of one's place in the puzzle, playing with the deck that's been dealt. Middle-class guilt for one's luxuries serves no one, but at the same time blinders to others' plight serve no one as well.

The conclusion which I draw this morning is that awareness of one's relative priviledge is key, while mildly indulging one's needs is not evil or disingenuous, as long as one retains a view of the larger picture, using that position of relative priviledge to positively effect the lives of others.

Some rhetorical questions:

Does the quintessential "wounded activist" serve anyone through his or her self-denial of pleasure? Does not the blind purchase of goods at Wal-Mart made in Chinese sweatshops help to perpetuate the globalization (and Wal-Martization) of the world? Does simply doing one's work and living a balanced and non-ostentatious life improve the lives of others indirectly? Do political bumper-stickers with catchy slogans preclude the need for real political activism in one's life? How do my actions from day to day truly effect the lives of people in Darfur, Palestine, South Central LA, or Basra? Does my purchase of a new refrigerator negatively impact some individual life somewhere in the world? What do my purchasing habits say about me? How does the sum of my actions define me in the larger scheme of things? Am I doing enough? Am I walking my talk? Where is my energy best spent? Am I more blinded by my priviledge than I can truly see?

I realize as I write that these are not necessarily the words of a person embracing a national holiday and paid day off with complete equanimity. I'm choosing to not live my life like a blind and ignorant bull in the china shop of the world. I want to acknowledge the paradoxes inherent in being a middle-class white American with full-time work, health insurance, my own home, and the luxury of time and material well-being. One must accept where one is, change that which one chooses to change, and live life according to a chosen path. I simply find it necessary to periodically examine that path, take stock of my position in the wider world, and determine if I'm truly living the life that I desire. Blindess is an option, but I choose today to re-open my eyes.
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