My oldest son squirms and mopes in his economy class seat, flouncing like a 1920’s film starlet and sighing deeply enough to drive a small wind turbine. He’s bored. He’s been on this stinking plane for almost an hour, and he wants off.
Some perspective: We’re on the second of two 1 1/2-hour hopscotch flights to Spain, on our way to visit the picturesque Mediterranean seaside town in which we will soon be privileged to live. The ride is smooth, the temperature in the plane comfortable, the view from the window of the French Alps piercing a pristine carpet of cloud. We’ve just come from the Business Lounge of the Zurich airport, one of those rarified spaces reserved for those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to rack up ungodly air miles, where we sat in plush leather seats and ate free gourmet food prepared and served by people who may or may not ever make enough money to actually take a flight from the airport at which they work.
And so I outlined all of that for him. In detail and with probably a bit of venom. I explained to him that his ostentatious suffering was, under the circumstances, not only unwarranted but actually offensive. ‘Disgusting’ I think was the word I used. No doubt I went overboard, but I wanted to impress upon him the absurdity of his melodramatic misery.
We – you, me, my family, our friends – are deeply privileged. Oh, I know, the financial crisis has created a lot of anguish and anxiety for a lot of people, and things don’t look to be getting significantly better any time soon. But if you’re reading this, you have both a computer and the leisure time in which to use it. Chances are neither you nor anyone you love is worried about getting enough food today, and if you want a drink of water it gushes safely and cheaply and plentifully out of a tap. Privileged.
Many years ago an English friend of mine visited Jamaica, where his family is originally from. He got talking to a local man, and told him that he had roots on the island.
“But now you live in England and are rich,” the man said.
My friend grew up in a rough part of London and his family was, by English standards, by no means rich. Firmly working-class. “No, no,” he responded, “I’m not rich. Far from it.”
“How did you get here?” the Jamaican asked him.
“Then you are rich,” the man concluded. My friend was stunned by this simple statement and all it implied, and he began to look at his working-class London upbringing from a fresh perspective.
We seem to live in an age when many young people feel entitled to their iPhones and iPads and tablets and mountains of toys, and while we could blame the media and advertising and peer pressure and the like, we, their parents, are often the primary culprits. We are complicit both in our own compulsive consumerism and in our desire to provide only the latest and best and coolest for our kids.
My wife and I are in no way guiltless here. Last Christmas I discovered that we had purchased so many things for our eldest son that it would have been ridiculous to actually give them to him all at once. So we held some back for his birthday. Then forgot all about them and amassed another superabundance of stuff.
But I’m working on two things: 1) sifting through and streamlining our possessions (“Simplify, simplify,” admonished Thoreau) and 2) working on teaching my kids, and myself, to realize and appreciate just how immensely, intensely lucky we are. Since we’re soon packing up and moving to a new country, the former should be fairly straightforward. The latter, though, well, that’s another matter.
It takes a shift in perspective, an honest evaluation of how much we already have – physical comforts, friends, a loving family, and so much more – to achieve the latter. And once you’ve introspected yourself into this higher plane of appreciation, how do you impress this enlightenment upon your kids? Just telling them that they’re pampered, lucky little buggers probably isn’t particularly effective. I mean, when your mom told you to finish your vegetables because there were starving children in China, did it make you look at that spinach in a whole new light, make you praise your good fortune at having access to abundant leafy greens?
I’m not completely sure how to achieve this. I think it takes constantly reminding them – and yourself – to be grateful for what you already have, and not to expect and demand always better, bigger, more. Not to automatically give in when your kids ask for something as small as an extra piece of chocolate after dinner or as big as the new tidbit of technology that everyone else has, just because you want them to like you. To risk the tears and tantrums that denial sometimes brings. To talk about how lucky we are, how blessed by circumstance and situation, and to get them actively involved in giving, sharing, and spreading their good fortune to those not so favored.
““To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ” So wrote American naturalist John Burroughs, and while I’m not going to be chucking out my laptop anytime soon or going to live at Walden Pond, I think it’s important to be cognizant of the facts that chances are we pretty much already have everything that we really need, that despite our daily worries and inconveniences our lives are fairly easy, and that many of the things we think are important are, in fact, not really.
Or as Dr. Seuss much more rhymingly put it,
“When you think things are bad,
when you feel sour and blue,
when you start to get mad…
you should do what I do!
Just tell yourself, Duckie,
you’re really quite lucky!
Some people are much more…
oh, ever so much more…
oh, muchly much-much more
unlucky than you!”