Last week’s photo challenge from WordPress was about something extraordinary. I didn’t get to it last week, so here it is today: the extraordinary abundance readily available to me at my local grocery store. When I stop to think about it, I’m blown away by how much food is set out there, attractively presented and carefully arranged. Here are some thoughts on abundance and privilege.
I am among the most fortunate people on the planet Earth. I’m a white upper-middle-class heterosexual American, well-educated and fully employed, living in a comfortable low-crime suburb. The only way I could be more privileged would be if I were truly wealthy, or male. I try every day to remind myself of how incredibly fortunate I am, and to do at least a little to share this good fortune with everyone else. My family donates a good percentage of our resources to an assortment of organizations doing good works around the world and locally in our region (food banks, disaster relief, water supplies, educational initiatives). I vote at every opportunity for initiatives designed to support those who need it most, in line with my belief that a civilization can best be judged by how well it treats those who have the least power. I feel righteous in this attitude, and not a little smug.
But then I stop at the grocery store on the way home and see the stunning array of foods, fresh and packaged, of cosmetics and health supplements, of frozen pizza and hot pizza by the slice, of birthday cards and imported chocolates and 24-packs of batteries and dozens of different kinds of toothpaste and tap water wrapped in throw-away plastic bottles, and it takes by breath away. The variety and quantity of goods at this one store is extraordinary, and that’s the nature of the problem. Shouldn’t this be ordinary? Why is this all laid out for me, when there are people living a few miles away who have no access to fresh vegetables, and people not much farther away who have nothing at all. Couldn’t I be doing more? Shouldn’t I be doing more?
I’m what Mamma used to describe as “no better than I should be,” a gentle Southern expression applied when people fail to meet some clear socials standards but we will find it in our heart to forgive them. Now Mamma used it to refer to someone who – gasp! – wore white shoes after Labor Day, but it also applies here, to me. I’ve used my privilege in some ways to help those less privileged, but not enough. I’ve always made sure that I have everything I want or need, that nothing limits what my children can accomplish, that my neighborhood stays safe and my lawn is nice and green. Can I really be expected to give up what makes my life comfortable to help someone else’s life reach a comfortable level? Does it count if I cling to my privilege, but feel bad about it?
I can’t answer these questions. Mostly I just pick up the milk and cereal I came for, pay, and go. My mind is on how I’m going to get dinner on the table in time to go to rehearsal or how long it’s going to take me to get those papers graded. But just once in a while I have to open my eyes to the reality of my situation, and take an honest look at my life.
It’s extraordinary. And that’s the problem.