Americans don’t know how good they have it
by Sarah Smiley
After traveling to places across the world — Venezuela, Portugal, the Middle East, Asia — my Navy dad always told me, “Americans don’t know how good they have it.”
When I was still a teenager and he said this, I’d usually roll my eyes and then hop into a warm shower with my pink loofa and volumizing, aloe-extract shampoo, only reinforcing Dad’s thoughts.
Today I am supposedly older and wiser, although still not worldly. In fact, because I’m afraid to fly, I’ve never even been outside the United States. The only impressions I have of the non-American world have been formed from stories and souvenirs that acquaintances have brought back from their own adventures. Each time my husband Dustin returns from an overseas deployment, I nag him for details — “What’s the food like in Spain? “Are there actual houses and buildings in Egypt? — like a wide-eyed child listening to a bedtime story about three little pigs that talk.
“They actually drive cars in Turkey?” I’d say. “So are the camels just for show?”
I’m exposing this naive, admittedly ignorant, side of myself not to poke fun at other countries, but to illustrate that many Americans only know other ways of living by what they see on television. (So, I guess that means I’m poking fun at Americans.)
Either way, when I was 16 (even 22) years old, I couldn’t imagine boiling my water before I drank it. To me, tap water was disgusting enough, let alone water that hadn’t come from a plastic, purified bottle. That would have been “like so third-world.” I was your average American, unaware of how easy my life truly is.
Then our town was hit by Hurricane Ivan last year, and suddenly I found myself worrying about things like displaced poisonous snakes, downed power lines, and clean drinking water. Finding a cool breeze and waiting in line for a tank of gas became the day’s tasks — not painting my nails. We went without power for several days, but what did it matter? No one had time to read People magazine or to watch Blind Date . We were too busy finding a place for our overflowing garbage, finding a doctor to fill our prescriptions and “inventing” new ways to wash clothes without power. (Although, hadn’t this already been “invented” long ago?)
“It’s like living in a third-world country,” I told concerned friends when our phone lines were finally restored. Not that I know what living in a third-world country is like.
But everything we went through in 2004, in many ways, pales in comparison to the conditions in Mississippi and Louisiana this month after Hurricane Katrina.
I wonder if people far removed from this region can really understand the devastation. Are the stranded families and shattered homes a mere news blurb on CNN? Do people watch the reports while they are sitting in air-conditioned homes, sipping tea and waiting for a load of laundry to dry?
I’m not being sarcastic, or even judgmental. After all, I’ve admitted that third-world countries are about as tangible to me as flying cows. I can’t even begin to put myself in their shoes — much like I can’t imagine the devastation in Mississippi and Louisiana –despite living through hurricane recoveries myself.
But if Hurricane Ivan taught me anything, it taught me tolerance and compassion — a new way of looking at the world — a new appreciation for my blessings.
Today there are thousands of people in our own country struggling to find life’s most basic necessities — water, food, and shelter. These are people who just two weeks ago were living normal, privileged American lives.
Their situation might seem removed to us — like scenes from another country — but it shouldn’t. Instead, let it be a reminder to us about the fragility of our comforts, and how thin the line is between “us” and “them.” Let it be a reminder that although our country is not impoverished, we are only one day — one gust, one tragedy — away from being without the commodities we’ve grown accustomed to.
And yet it’s that fragile line which makes America what it is. It’s what most of the outside world admires. And still, we don’t know how good we’ve got it.