“The only people who see the whole picture,” he murmured, “are the ones who step out of the frame.”
~ Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet
I stepped out of the frame and moved outside the border of my homeland almost five years ago.
Living as an expatriate in the beautiful, fertile, mountainous land of Guatemala continues to be an eye-opening and heart-opening experience. My lifestyle has changed in deep and lasting ways, and my quality of life is, in my opinion, sky high.
I feel fortunate, because I am fortunate.
I am privileged. I am white. I grew up in a loving, middle class family. I was born in the United States. I excelled in school. I finished college with a degree in a field I no longer cared for (advertising) and was privileged with the ability to switch to a more suitable career (education).
If you’re reading this, you’re probably relatively privileged as well. If you’ve traveled and visited any “developing” countries, you’ve no doubt witnessed poverty. Did you avert your eyes? Did you wonder why you were born so relatively rich while others have next to nothing? Did you feel guilty for it?
Feeling confused about our privilege is a natural phase.
Why are we so lucky while others are not?
Why were we born into the family and place that we were? Getting over the guilt is important. It is the first step toward using our privilege for good.
Guatemala has plenty of poverty, but nothing in my experience here compares to the several weeks I spent in northern India in 2008. The barefoot, hungry children swarming and begging for money, food, anything, was almost too much to bear.
If I had never traveled to India or Mexico or Guatemala, I might still be living in Austin, getting pedicures, drinking $8 cocktails at happy hours with my friends and shopping at Old Navy for superfluous garments and shoes to stuff into my closet. I might be driving a gas-guzzling car and working for the weekend. I might be donating to charity, more to make myself feel less guilty than any more noble aspiration.
Living here has made me super conscious of the value of money. In the States, one can easily spend $50 or more on a haircut at a nice salon. Fifty bucks goes a loooong way in a developing country, toward buying books, healthy snacks and supplies for schoolchildren. Full disclosure: I cut my own hair these days for zero dollars.
This is not to say we should feel bad about occasionally splurging on nice things for ourselves and loved ones. But when such “splurges” becomes routine, they’re no longer a treat, they are examples of mindless and excessive consumerism.
Acknowledging and owning our privilege is key. Leveraging it to benefit others is essential to creating an enlightened society of conscious, compassionate beings.
Several years ago, I invested $300 in various projects via Kiva.org in lieu of Christmas shopping. Now, the site tells me when I log in, I’ve lent $1275 in 21 different countries. They paid me back, and I reinvested. That’s the power of micro-lending. People I will never meet have benefited from tiny loans from my and others’ humble bank accounts.
Do you know how many orphans there are in the world?
Over 140 million. That’s an unthinkable statistic, and if you’ve been to even one poorly run orphanage, you’ve surely felt the palpable sadness and suffering.
In the year 2000, my friend Caroline took a round-the-world trip with a stop in India. Witnessing the despicable conditions of a rural orphanage she visited changed her life and motivated her to create The Miracle Foundation. Today, 14 years later, she is opening her tenth orphanage. She has, through trial and error, created a system that prevents corruption and promotes healthy, sustainable practices in the orphanages that her organization supports.
She looked unimaginable deprivation, overwhelm and fear in the face and instead of shrinking away, she did something about it. She redesigned her life, switching from a high-powered career in PR to become the founder of her own non-profit. Even if we can’t make such a drastic change personally at this time, we can support the work of Caroline and other karma yogi go-getters like her. (Stay tuned for an upcoming article I’m writing on Caroline and her work for Mother’s Day!)
This world is full of problems, pain and suffering. It can feel overwhelming when we look at the heap as a whole. But as the saying goes, no one can do everything but we can each do something.
We can recognize our privilege and use our educated minds and money to create waves of good karma, compassion and care that radiate out from our hearts into the world.
How are you using your privilege for the greater good?