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Living in a Nice Neighborhood

Posted by on Dec 17, 2012 | 8 Comments

Back in my early days as a teacher, I had the opportunity to serve on our district’s “diversity committee.” We were charged with developing ways to introduce our mostly white suburban student population to more diversity. Initially the committee came up with ridiculous ideas like making posters and holding a “diversity day.” Luckily some members of the committee dug deeper and came up with an excellent solution- some of us would attend a local seminar called “Healing Racism.”

The facilitator of the group, Dr. Steve Robbins, was excellent. For the first time in my life, I engaged in meaningful dialogue with people of other races. Specifically, we addressed the issue of racism. The experience was deeply moving on many levels.

One of the topics we discussed was the idea that we seldom examine our environment, lifestyle, thoughts, behaviors… whatever. Dr. Robbins also introduced the idea of “nice”, as in “I live in a nice house”, “I drive a nice car”, or my personal favorite: “I live in a nice neighborhood.”

Nice, as Robbins explained, could stand for “Not Inclined to Critically Examine.” The things we consider “nice” are really nothing more than facades covering deep dysfunction. We create the facades to mask the dysfunction; to hide it from the rest of the world.

Needless to say, it changed my outlook on life. For the first time, I began to actually examine my life at the time. I began to see what was beneath my own facade. I also realized everyone else put up a facade, too. They extended that facade to their families, their homes, and their neighborhoods.

This idea has always been brewing in the back of my head. It played a role in our decision to leave our supposed “nice” careers and middle class lifestyle to live in a travel trailer and hover on the brink of poverty. In an earlier post, I mentioned that running long races is an attempt to manufacture adversity. Our current lifestyle ups that ante considerably… and it has been a Hell of a learning experience.

One of the lessons we’ve learned is that we have certain “preferred” environments. Our two favorite campgrounds were in rural Virginia and an especially poor area of San Diego (where we’re currently living.) I was also fond of a campground in rural Arizona. These campgrounds were mostly filled with permanent residents living in slightly dilapidated RVs. Our least favorite places? Lake Elsinore, Truckee, suburban Atlanta where the campgrounds were filled with weekend warriors getting some use out of their quarter of a million dollar motor homes.

I speculate part of that preference is due to the honesty of low-income campground living. Quite literally, people can’t hide their secrets nearly as well. There isn’t a giant house with thick walls to keep prying eyes or curious ears at bay. There are no gates with security codes to keep the “undesirables” out. There is no income-based segregation that assures our neighbors have the same shade of skin.

A recent trip to Starbucks made me think of Robbins’ idea of “nice”, which caused me to reflect on our travels. Specifically, why were we so fond of these areas that, on the surface, seem like really rough neighborhoods. And why did we dislike the “yuppie” places so much?

After being trapped between two well-dressed women engaging in a banal conversation about nothingness, it dawned on me- spending a lot of time around people that struggle on a daily basis made the facade of the “nice” areas painfully transparent. A quick assessment of these women’s conversation was telling. Neither were really listening to the other; they were just politely waiting to take their turn to brag about their meaningless drivel. Instead of believing the smiles and glee of these upper middle class suburbanites, I could see the pain in their eyes. I could hear the hollowness in their voices. Their overall body language betrayed their once-convincing facades. They had expertly created their “nice” lives which would have fooled in in the past. However, my experiences allowed me to see the veneer peeling a little at the edges.

I started to reflect on my own move toward simplification; toward the rejection of that lifestyle I once lived. Overt materialism was replaced by voluntary simplicity. The quest for comfort and security was replaced by quests for experiences and adventures. Instead of building walls to keep people out, we did what we could to open ourselves to new experiences. Instead of working unfulfilling jobs to buy unnecessary stuff, we started this journey of self-discovery.

A major part of that self-discovery has been the realization that we rarely listen to each other. We spend far too much time talking, then pretending to listen as we formulate our next thought. When we do take the time to listen, we find most people have absolutely fascinating stories, acute observations, and incredibly insightful thoughts. I’ve found these are the people that have taken the time to ponder their place in life. They’re the people that question behaviors, meanings, and motives. They are the people that understand the absurdity of our “nice” lifestyles.

Of course, my observations could be completely off-base. Maybe these suburbanites really are overjoyed at their new sofa. Maybe it’s the pinnacle of the human experience and it completes them. Maybe they’re perfectly content with their pretentious venti chai latte with an extra shot of blah blah blah. Maybe Robbins’ assessment of “nice” was inaccurate and ideas like societally-constructed facades that hide things like implicit racism and overt materialism don’t really exist. Maybe I’m really just bitter and rationalizing my own life decisions because I’m a douchey hypocrite. I was, after all, buying coffee at Starbucks. Maybe I secretly long to go back to that life of quiet desperation where happiness could be found at IKEA, that edgy new store in the mall, or the latest iTurd. Maybe I’m just channeling my French heritage and am nothing more than a snobby poor person.

Maybe I just need to run a little more.

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8 Comments

  1. Matt
    December 20, 2012

    The suburbanites and their fancy coffees and houses are no more pretentious than your pseudo-intellectualism and bragging about how much more “real” or “honest” your life is.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2012

      While you accurately diagnosed my pseudo-intellectualism, you failed to detect my pseudo-satire, pseudo-humor, and, if you’ve read a lot of my other posts, my commentary on my pseudo-athleticism.

      I’m pseudo-dissapointed. ;-)

  2. TimD
    December 19, 2012

    Fantastic post, Jason. Here’s my question. How has your shift in thinking and values affected the relationships with family members who don’t think critically? That’s been a challenge for us (and these are relationships that we really don’t want to throw away).

    • Jason
      December 22, 2012

      We’ve taken an approach recommended by our therapists, which can be summed up with three points:

      1. Don’t try to change others, just focus on changing yourself. Whike we can influence others, it’s almost always more effective to act in a way that reflects your world view.

      2. Limit exposure to those that have a negative influence on your life; increase exposure to those that have a positive influence on your life. If we have people in our lives that somehow negatively impact us, we give them the power to do so. Recognizing that and acting accordingly can be a powerful life-changing habit.

      3. Honestly put yourself out there. Like-minded people will gravitate toward you; those that think otherwise will be repelled. That’s a major reason I write posts like this… it acts as a filter. I’m not interested in getting everyone to like me. I’m interested in interating with people that will engage in a mutual exchange of ideas to make both of us better.

      So far, using these as guiding principles has been extremely successful.

  3. Chadisbarefoot
    December 18, 2012

    Haha, Jason! I was thinking, “Sounds like the beginnings of justification for French-style revolution,” just before I read your quip about your Franco-snobbish heritage. lol

    Great post, though. Your previous musings about living minimally have really struck home with me. I am reminded of Christ’s admonishments to his followers and others who approached him desiring to jump on board. Matthew 8:20 – “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had (which was a lot!). He said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” There is definitely something soul cleansing and eye-opening about living day-to-day.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2012

      A co-worker, upon finding out I was a bit of an atheist, commented that he assumed I was a devout Christian based on my world views. It made me chuckle.

      I think too many religious people really miss the lesson you mentioned. If all of us lived as a homeless person on the streets of a “bad” neighborhood for a day or two once each year, our world would be a LOT better place.

  4. .:Ash:.
    December 17, 2012

    I like this one. It brings this to mind:
    “You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.” -Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

    • Jason
      December 22, 2012

      We’re all fucked up in some way. Some of us have experienced trauma, bad childhoods, body image issues, relationship strife… whatever.

      I’ve found material possessions distract us from really trying to solve our issues. Of course, not everyone agrees, which is cool. I suspect those people think fight club was a movie about fighting clubs, too. :-)