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.