Tassew was my cab driver to the airport in Atlanta. I noticed he had Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents tucked beside his seat – which was quite an opener for conversation. Right away we were deep into the topic of cultural evolution and found ourselves agreeing about so many discontents of modern life. He started by comparing his native Ethiopia and the US. Here we suffer from too much individualism, according to Tassew – what I’d call “hyper-individualism.” When he contemplated coming here from his native land, he imagined not streets paved with gold but liberated minds, richly fed with technology and information – minds that soared. Why, he asked, are people so focused on getting ahead and having more – when they are smart enough and wealthy enough to choose a different way?
What an opening to talk about the very ideas I’m touring to share: how the consumer culture promotes valuing things over relationships, a wealth gap that engenders envy and competition, a “more is better and it’s never enough” mentality keeps people lusting after the next great toy. It’s a lonely existence, we agreed, but in Ethiopia where they have a richness of relationship and mutual support there is so little opportunity for personal self expression, for changing your mind or your life. Somewhere between those extremes, he said, there has to be some better way.
In my view, that better way comes with maturity, comes with a focus on the peak of the fulfillment and an open, honest and frequent inquiry into “how much is enough?” How many gadgets. How many gigs of hard drive storage. How many shoes. How must time at the office. How many horses under the hood of your car. How many people must die in a war for peace. How many workshops. He pointed out that Europe seems to have more balance between hyper freedom and oppressive constraint. Perhaps they do have that because they’ve gone through their teenage years of Feudalism and Empire building and bloodbaths on their doorstoops and they are no longer able to play “king of the mountain” with any degree of pleasure. The European Dream, if you will, is intelligent public policies and long meals and long vacations and universal health care and small cars and high gas prices and walking and biking and fabulous public transportation and free education… all of which seem like impossible dreams here in America.
We got on to Obama, and whether he will bring about the change we need. Tassew isn’t so sure, given who he has picked for his team (insiders and old time Clinton-ers) and how thoroughly the political system grinds up big goals and good intentions into some sort of centrist gruel. “It’s not just about what Obama will do,” I countered, “it’s about what we will do with the opportunity his Presidency offers us.” There’s an opening now. Will we go in.
“I’m an idealist”, he said, “but I’ve lost hope.”
“Hope comes from participation,” i replied. It isn’t an assessment of what’s going on out there. It’s acting on behalf of your values.” We were then at the Atlanta airport. He shook my hand warmly with both of his – and if we’d paused a bit longer i think we would have hugged.
As luck would have it, the flight attendant on my plane to Denver was a lean, loose jointed and smiling West African. He and I slid in to the same conversation about how isolated and lonely we are here. There, he said, people are always happy, always doing things together like eating and laughing. His kids like Africa better because they are free – they can play anywhere because everyone looks after everyone’s children. At home they just stay indoors and watch TV and do video games because they can’t leave the house without an adult. No one knows their neighbors. “That’s why I am a flight attendant,” he said, “so i can spend my day close to so many people.”
The tour is raising the question “what are we really giving up now that we can’t afford the more we thought would be better? Haven’t we sacrificed the best in life in service to have the second best… the stuff that costs money and time and worry?”