The darkness was thick. I’d never seen a sky so black or filled with such brilliant points of light. “Light pollution” to the north, where my gaze was fixed, was non-existent. On this hot, steamy August night on the Atlantic coast, minutes from downtown Montecristi, Dominican Republic, as I considered how much electricity my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee must generate to outshine the stars, my Perspective changed.
When I slammed the old, metal rake onto the dirt floor of the church building I was helping to construct, I felt like my muscles had nothing left. I was running on fumes in the late summer heat. All morning and the entire day before were spent hauling 8″ x 12″ concrete blocks up to the roof. Today we were leveling the dirt for the cement slab they would be pouring when the funds came in. I used muscles I had forgotten since my first trip to Montecristi when we dug 119 holes out in the desert to pour homemade concrete footers for fence posts… Ugh, not a friendly memory at the moment… I just wanted to lay down for a bit… After some water, of course……….. Back to reality. We were just finishing up grading the floor. It had to be exactly four inches below the little cords we had strung tightly across the room. And the dirt was like particles of stone. There was absolutely no moisture in it. How did people manage to do this for thousands of years before the bulldozer was contrived? Sure, we were in the shade, but good grief, this was torture! I contemplated the incredible advances my own country had made during this return trip to Montecristi, and my Perspective changed.
“Don’t drink the water,” they said. “Oh, and make sure you don’t flush the toilet paper.” Ooookay? I stood in the cold shower, remembering the warnings they had given me before I landed in Montecristi and concentrating hard on keeping the water out of my mouth as it dripped at very low pressure from the shower head. What if I contract a water-borne illness down here? What if something like that got into the water supply at home? I hastily dried off and stepped away from the phobia-inducing water. My Perspective had changed.
I knew changes in temperature could really be nice. Stepping into a warm vehicle on a cold, windy day was pleasant. A cool swimming pool after a long day working outside in July was always a welcome treat. If I’m honest, though, I would admit I had never gone more than, heck, I don’t know, 16 hours? without returning to a nice 70-degree room. And then I stepped into the international airport in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Oh. My. Goodness. AIR CONDITIONING – for the first time in about a week. My Perspective changed in a hurry.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing – a vast space befitting a vast country full of human life. There was the Forbidden City, the flags, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Such profound history, but my eyes kept returning to the sky. It was impossible to tell if the sun was behind a gigantic, homogeneous cloud, or if dense smog was responsible for the haze. Maybe the clouds and smog were one and the same. Anyway, in a city of 17 million people, with five gridlocked rings of superhighway enclosing the city, there was bound to be some pollution. I just didn’t realize how severe it could be. My breathing felt unimpeded. But I took note and mentally contrasted images of American cities to this immense Chinese metropolis. I walked around in that bleakness that should’ve been dazzling sunlight at 11 a.m. And my Perspective changed.
For the first 18 years of my life, all I knew was the pervasive comforts of good ol’ United States prosperity. I didn’t give much thought to the processes that were necessary to make my life not just good, not just really good, but really, really good. I wasn’t precisely ignorant about the years of innovation, raw man-hours, risk of capital, and resilient effort that led to the environment in which I had lived up to that point; I mean, I’m a reasonably intelligent individual, so I knew things didn’t just happen on their own. And sure, I knew about the starving children in Africa. I knew about the elemental hardships of many Middle East dwellers. I knew that millions of Asians are threatened by epic floods every year. I wasn’t exactly sheltered. But then again, when I got my fill of the harsh realities in the world beyond my air-conditioned, sanitary, insulated, protected bubble, I could always just utilize the steady power coming from the outlets in my spacious house and fire up the Xbox.
It would be dishonest to say I don’t sometimes mentally block out the unrelenting poverty and inconvenience that I know exists outside of my country. But I can’t “un-see” what I have seen. The chains of thought that rose to consciousness when those scenes of discomfort and wonder passed before my senses are now awake in perpetuity. There is no escaping them; the mental hiatuses I periodically engage in leave me feeling shallow at their conclusion. I also can’t say I’m grateful as much as I should be. I take much for granted. However, one thing is certain: these experiences have made me fall deeper in love with my country and the things that have granted me comforts I did not earn. My Perspective isn’t perfectly rounded. But one thing it’s not is rough around the edges. I know what I have here. I know what miracles surround me. I know what selflessness ushered in the comparably endless riches that I skim over every single day.
With this Perspective in mind, I look upon those currently protesting in the streets – the graded, finely paved thoroughfares that are nothing more than pothole-ridden stretches of rough concrete on some major highways of the world – and in the grass – ah, what a luxury that rich, green foliage is on the eyes for someone who lives in the scorched deserts of northern Dominican Republic – of our cities – our clean, relatively unpolluted population centers where garbage is generally kept in bins rather than stinking heaps in the corners of the street – and I am deeply moved. At one time, I reached only for anger at such people, and unfortunately I still do at times. But below that anger is profound sadness. Sadness for people who protest the gap between their own wealth and the wealth of the richest citizens of their own land. Sadness for people who have the ability to see what is happening around the world and instead narrow their field of vision to the relatively minuscule difference between their affluence and that of others in the skyscrapers – each one a veritable miracle of architecture – above them.
Sadness for people who do not yet have a changed Perspective.