A buddy of mine used to work for a plumbing and heating contractor. He told a joke about how to install toilets. It went: “How do you know how tight to make the toilet bolts?” The answer was: “Tighten them until the toilet breaks and then back off a half-a-turn.”
My privilege is on my mind almost all the time. It is the refrigerator humming in the background of my life. I will sometimes forget about it only to have the privilege compressor kick on to remind me that it is still what is allowing me to proceed in the manner that I am.
I have so much. I have time to pontificate and write. I have time to cook really nice meals. I don’t worry about where my food will come from. I have the luxury of choosing what I will do on most days. I rarely worry about violence towards myself or my family. I make very little money, but as my father used to say: “Once you have lived in East Africa with people that own next to nothing, it is difficult to call yourself poor.”
With all the talk about building walls I have wrestled with the cost of defending my afforded privilege. Were there to be a global Jubilee, I would be on the ‘losing’ end resource-wise (I might come out ahead in terms of joy and would undoubtedly come out ahead in terms of appreciation and gratitude.) My privilege requires a wall. It doesn’t matter if I believe in building a wall between the United States and Mexico. My way of life is dependent on the vast majority of my fellow humans not having access to what I have.
I don’t consider walls inherently bad. I am glad that my cells have walls around them. I think it’s healthy in many ways to have lines of demarcation. Such boundaries afford identity and protection which are both highly beneficial. I like my tribe. I like my town. I like the walls on my building…but there are 7.7 billion people who also have similar feelings. That is nearly twice as many people as when I was born. It is difficult for me to think about what my responsibility is to this larger group of humanity.
I didn’t and don’t plan on bringing any children into the world. So I could try to make the case to myself that I am not responsible for this unprecedented demand on resources. It’s not my ‘fault’. I could try to convince myself of this.
I was listening to a recording of Kent Nerburn the other day. He was telling the story of a Lakota man whose son broke into a liquor store. When the police showed up at their home, the father took the fall for his son and went to prison for a decade. The father’s reasoning was that he could make it through the prison sentence without having his spirit broken because he had endured the torturous experience of boarding school when he was young (If you are not aware of this history, educate yourself http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/PageServer…). I was struck by the idea of making a choice based on knowing one’s capacity to endure and inner resources as opposed to entitlement and personal responsibility. I started to think that the source of life in the world doesn’t give a shit about personal responsibility. I mostly think Life is desperately alluring us to think of ourselves in terms of our capacity to serve something beyond personal.
The toilet is going to break. I guess that is how we will find out what is too much. It is strange living in a place and time where our dilemma is too much. We have reacted to our ancestors struggle to survive and get to a better place by demanding that we not simply be allowed to proceed, but that we be entitled to proceed with storage units full of stuff. I do not exclude myself from this evaluation. We have access to more resources than we require. The yoke of abundance is not easy. It is a heavy burden because it requires defending our stuff and our ‘right’ to maintain our way of life. There are people who refuse this burden.
One time I was helping a man die that had been homeless much of his life. One of his most prized ‘possessions’ was Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. He had memorized it and recited the entire poem to me as I sat at his bedside. It was his companion when he was homeless and he walked with it through parks and forest preserves. The fact that he carried this poem without having to defend it made its companionship to him intimate in a way I envied. It was on his lips as his part of the caravan moved beyond my view.
Maybe the porcelain has already snapped. Maybe we are in the time of staring at the broken toilet in disbelief. The time of wondering why this happened to us. The time of wishing we had just stopped tightening the damn thing a quarter-turn ago. The time of trying to figure out who’s fault it is…the directions were written horribly…the thing was a piece of crap to begin with…and on and on.
I wonder why it is this time in history that I am alive. There is a great rage welling up around the world. There are leaders being elected for all sorts of offices who get our vote by declaring that the toilet should not have broken and it is clearly someone else’s fault. But what is our capacity to learn from the broken toilet and help steer spaceship earth (as Buckminster called it) in a way that serves the more-than personal, the more-than-human, and ancestor-and-yet-to-arrive honoring? My prayer is that this great welling rage collapses into a turbulent kinetic energy of grieving. Not grieving for just our own losses, but grieving as a path to access our capacity to struggle for something that serves more than ourselves. If my writing can serve this, I give myself to it.