We are a culture of platitudes.
This is your life. Do what you love. Just do it. Never give up. Never give in. Dance like no one is watching. Live each day as if it were your last. No fear. Life sucks and then you die. Deal with it.
We buy the posters and hang them on our walls. We buy the desk calendar every year, dutifully ripping pages and tossing them in the trash each day. We scrawl them on post-its and embroider them on uncomfortable cushions we never use.
Elsewhere a daughter slams her door and sobs, choking on her tears and bitterness because her mother doesn’t understand, because she said piano lessons are not important, that you don’t need music to be happy, even though all her friends can make magic with their fingers and that wonderful box of wire and wood. Downstairs her mother hears her rage and lets it burn. She stares at the pile of papers on the table, forbidding capital letters shoving her inadequacy deep with in her, forcing it down her throat until she feels like she will vomit. She lets her daughter hate her, because to explain would be a far greater cruelty. A mother’s petty tyranny is nothing compared to the unrelenting march of bills – heat, hydro, water, gas, phone, car, dentist, doctor, shoes, clothes, food. She doesn’t want her daughter to see the world as she does, black and white of a balance ledger: things that cost, things they can’t afford. She wants her daughter to revel in the beauty of the crimson sunset without thinking about how long past dark she can leave the lights off, keep the thermostat down.
But this is her choice. She could have a better life if she just wanted it hard enough, for after all –
We are a culture of opportunity.
If you don’t like your job, quit. Some opportunities come only once – seize them. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. God helps those who help themselves. Seize the moment. Luck is just the intelligence to make the most of an opportunity.
We relish opportunity. We gorge ourselves on it, stuffing our mouths and minds with the self-satisfied assurance that everything we have is well deserved because we had the guts to go after it. We affect modesty and make fate into an eternal Santa Claus that you don’t have to outgrow just because you wear big boy pants now. I was lucky. Just in the right place at the right time, I guess. Coulda happened to anyone.
Meanwhile a teenager slips into a hard pew in the middle of winter and tries to ignore the disapproving looks at his attire. Jeans and a t-shirt aren’t respectful enough to meet with our Lord. He soaks in the warmth of the room and the promises of the man in black on his high pulpit – Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin. His stomach churns and groans out embarrassing sounds as the preacher reminds him to think of the birds. Later, someone passes the collection plate. He sneaks a glance and pockets a few coins, feeling their weight as a solid presence in his pocket. He’s caught, of course, sharp fingers digging into the sharper points of his shoulder. Stinging words slice across him: how could he steal from the Church? How could he be so selfish as to take money meant for the greater good, the poor, the needy? They rebuke his mother for not teaching him manners, heaping blame upon a near-lifeless form huddled in the blankets, moving only to replace the needle.
They turn him out and return to their piety. They don’t notice the frostbite on his fingers, the tatters in his jeans, the shoes he slipped off because they pinch his feet and are soaked with slush then frozen solid again. Why should they? He’d probably planned to use the money for drugs. He isn’t truly poor. They know the poor; they see them every Saturday at the soup kitchen. The poor are upstanding, down-on-their-luck citizens who are pathetically grateful for that mug of soup and crust of bread. They thank Jesus and the Church for every bite. Their children draw crayon pictures for the Church bulletin board. After all –
We are a culture of choices.
Our lives are one giant bread aisle at the supermarket. White. Enriched white. Wheat. Whole wheat. Whole grain. Rye. Pumpernickel. Multigrain. Sourdough. Oat. Barley. Challah. Thick crust. Thin crust. Bakery fresh. Pre-sliced.
Our lives are a dazzle of choices. In university we pay a middle-class salary to sleep through class, to blow off lectures because we’re hungover, hungry, busy, don’t feel like it. We take courses on globalization so we can remind everyone that no one needs to stay a peasant; no one would be homeless if they didn’t want to be. We curl up our noses at welfare cheats. Our ancestors came here on a boat with two dollars in their pockets, and look at us now! We travel to Mexico and leave an angry online review because the hotel had the audacity to serve us canned pineapple from Florida.
Not too far away, a man chokes on the dust and feathers in the air. His job is to pluck the chickens after the people up the line decapitate them. His fingers are raw and slick with the blood that coats his clothing and fills his nose. Next to him his seven-year-old son solemnly removes handful after handful of down, never complaining because he knows the pain of an empty stomach. He forgoes school to feed himself, and he’s proud that he’s a man. When the overseers aren’t watching, the boy tosses a pile of fluff in the air and beams as they flutter down, kissing his cheeks and eyelids like the fresh snow he never sees. His father watches as the sunlight slips through, the beams thick with dust motes. Another six hours and they can go home. His son will collapse on the floor to sleep while he goes to his second job.
Outside, animal rights groups stand in angry rows, waving picket signs and shouting until their voices are hoarse and nearly inaudible. But they will not stop until the world has heard and seen the horrible things this factory does – to its chickens. Because after all –
We are a culture of absolution.
Coin boxes at the grocery store: a few pennies inside, maybe a quarter from someone who wanted to impress the girl on his arm. Donate a dollar to the homeless and buy a whole year’s worth of freedom from guilt. Charity drives, radio drives, telethons; teary celebrities in designer outfits holding up pictures of sad-eyed African children today, buying another Jaguar tomorrow.
We resent the poor for existing. We resent them for interfering with our daily lives, for ruining a good morning with their stick-thin arms and distended bellies and tiny, skeletal babies lying still in the dirt while flies lick at the corners of their eyes. We resent the posters near the checkout in the grocery store because it ruins our appetite for the dinner we just spent $50 buying ingredients. We resent them when we try to watch The Price is Right, that glorious symbol of the American Dream, and every other commercial is for World Vision. We resent the guilt that those smug, self-sacrificing jerks try to make us feel for having clothes, a home, a car, an XBox. Don’t they understand we do everything we can? We get enraged on Twitter for a day or two. We post links on Facebook. We text 90-999 to Haiti. We have Twibbons and bumper stickers. No one should try to make us feel bad.
In India, a wife looks at the mound where her husband was buried, the grave wider than tradition calls for to make room for his twisted frame, arms and legs akimbo, his body frozen in the death throes of his final movements as he choked and gagged and coughed up froth, the pesticides he swallowed when he couldn’t pay back the corporations who sold him genetically engineered seeds that couldn’t germinate more than once. She wonders how much it hurt him, if the burning was just as bad on the way up as it was the first time. She gives her child a toy, a stick and some string; makes sure he’s happy while she walks outside, pours herself a glass of electric blue bug-killer, and toasts her husband.
She’s selfish, leaving her child, and bloggers will decry her to the stars, but not one will adopt her child or offer to pay her debts, as after all –
We are a culture of avoidance.
Commercials. Pamphlets. Junk mail. Free stationery and address labels. Door-to-door intruders. Mall Santas. Children with signs and change boxes.
We change the channel or fast-forward through the commercials. We cross the street to avoid the vultures and their imploring looks. We throw the paper in the junk pile; we’re torn between using the address stamps or throwing them away, and so they pile up in a back drawer. Occasionally the guilt creeps back, so we donate ten dollars to looking the other way, taking another route, pulling out the cell phone for a convenient imaginary conversation.
Across the ocean, a woman with half a face and skin like melted plastic limps away from her husband’s home. His new wife will arrive tomorrow, fresh and beautiful, young and nubile. She touches her face, the ropy, sagging flesh strange against her fingers. At night she screams herself awake, remembering the splash of kerosene against her skin, the sharp smell as the gas filled her throat, and the terrifying dizziness as her husband pushed her into their wood stove. She hears the sizzle of her skin and smells burning meat, and recalls those few detached moments before the pain set in where her brain could not register what has happened. Later, she lies beneath a stranger who grunts and thrusts himself inside her while holding a pillow to her face because her ugliness offends him. In her old house, the new wife – young, so young, and terrified – screams and sobs and begs while her husband rapes her, secure in the knowledge that the law protects his rights to a warm marriage bed.
The internet picks up the story, and for a few days, indignation fans the flame of righteous anger. But the story slides to page two, page five, then finally, is reduced to the most well-intentioned but damnable word: a tragedy. Governments say nothing, because after all –
We are a culture of tolerance.
Love your neighbour. Love the sinner, hate the sin. I don’t agree with your opinion, but I’ll defend your right to have it. We’re a quilt, not a melting pot. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of choice. Freedom of religion. Freedom of non-religion. Don’t press your beliefs on others. Just because it works for you, doesn’t mean it works for everyone.
We’ve learned from the White Man’s Burden, from Imperialism, from Colonialism. We learned from those arrogant Caucasian men who thought they could impose their way of life on other cultures. We cringe and are embarrassed for Robinson Crusoe. We pat ourselves on the back for being so open, so accepting. We watch Ellen Degeneres. We buy clothes based on the recommendation of prancing, lisping men.
Somewhere, a man picks up a discarded shoe and shoves it in a trash bag. Its owner accidentally dislodged it when his legs kicked spasmodically, nerves reacting to restricted airways. Its owner's lover still has his shoes; his neck snapped when the panel dropped and the rope went taut. In another country, small boys mop up the blood and severed hair from the execution square, while the headless bodies of two women caught holding hands are violated by a gleeful, hollering crowd before being tossed in a pit. Somewhere else, the quiet pair who lived together chastely are dragged from their beds and shot, one bullet in each forehead. The daughter of two mothers chokes on the sickening stench of two people being burned alive. The sacrifices are meant to appease the respective gods, the holy texts’ messages of love and peace rendered illegible by the flow of blood. Across the world, 79 living, breathing humans cast their vote that this is acceptable, that this right should not be snatched from the worthy hands of those who just want justice.
Because it’s their culture, you see, their religion, and we’ve learned from Defoe, from Kipling, from Said. We will not be so arrogant as to think the way we live is superior to those who are just different from us. One day they will realize they are wrong, but it will be meaningful because they will have come to this conclusion on their own, without our interference. We quietly chastise those who would be furious; remind them that change takes time, that it’s not our fault, not our duty, not our fight, not our worry. For after all –
We are the privileged, and this is what we stand for.