In reading the article “Shopping Our Way to Safety” for my American Conversations course, I was struck by the simple yet disturbing analysis of our tendency as Americans to remove ourselves entirely from the “problems” that make us uncomfortable. As Szasz points out, suburbia is a mode of literally running away from the social issues of cities, the sight of poverty, and the conflicts that come with race relations (3). Rather than try to fix the inner cities, we spend our time and money sprawling to the outskirts—enjoying the cultural benefits of good city restaurants and entertainment, while keeping our hands clean of everything else that comes with the territory of a skyscraping landscape. We bring the “good” schools with us when we go—carting our children in SUVs that promise wheel traction even in rock slides. We dutifully give our spare change to unicef each year, and once in awhile we call the number on the screen beneath that child’s face whose eyelids are covered with flies. And yet, we never really see these kids.
Yesterday, I went to a lunch where a man who has traveled to the most devastated regions of Haiti year after year talked about what it means to see. He told the story of a man who sat in a diner, about to enjoy a meal. The man watched as the plate was set in front of him, his eyes widening and his mouth watering in anticipation. And then he glanced to his right. Pressed against the glass were the faces of three children—their hair bleached with the whiteness that comes with malnutrition, and their bellies helplessly distended. They glared at his food. He looked back with shifting eyes. He couldn’t eat. The waiter, familiar with the scene that was taking place, walked over and shut the blinds. He told the man not to let the sight of those children disturb him. As the shade was drawn, the man saw the metaphor in the action. So often, we close the blinds to what we don’t want to see. We move away, we walk a little faster, and we make excuses for why we can’t save the world. To some extent, we do need to remove ourselves. We need to be conscious of the fact that we can’t fix everything. If we were constantly completely aware of all of the suffering that is going on in the world we would live very miserable lives. But we need to make ourselves conscious of some of it. We need to spend time discovering what we are each individually passionate about, and use these passions to create change. We need to start with small steps, and make the gradual ascent to large ones. We need to give one meal to those starving children outside of the window, and refuse for the first time to pull down the shade. This is a big part of what I believe Campus Ecology is all about—being aware of the world around you and evaluating it for all of its beauty and its horror. Perfection and true “happiness” may never be attainable, but in order to get any closer to a sort of “world peace” we have to imagine. We have to start small.