22 November 2006

True Beauty

The guy in the seat in front of mine took a last swig out of his plastic water bottle, checked to make sure it was empty, screwed the cap back on, casually leaned over and threw it out of the window. That done he settled back to enjoy the journey home. I opened my mouth, nothing came out. Again I tried but I ended up sighing and looking out the same window, as if I could suck the bottle back in and take it to a trashcan.

I learned my lesson a few years ago when on a longer journey mine was the only window that opened. I felt fortunate at the time given the outside temperature was over 30° C, and inside it wasn’t much cooler. A street vendor got on as the bus went over a speed bump and sold a bunch of rice and chicken lunches in small, cheap Tupperware type containers. My fortune turned into horror, however, as one by one people stood up to throw their empty containers out my window. I closed it, they reopened it. I asked one if he thought Ecuador was a beautiful country, and he gave me a questioning stare that said a thousand words. I closed my window repeatedly until people decided that it was easier to ask the driver to open the bus door and dispose of their trash that way. The gringo doesn’t understand how things work in our country. Why do they come here anyway? Well, as long as they spend their dollars…

I have made more than a busfull of enemies over the years here. The last town I lived in had a beautiful little river that ran right behind our house. Downstream about 100 meters were a bunch of houses out of which little old ladies would emerge daily to ceremoniously dump their plastic garbage bags in the river. Hey lady, this is YOUR town, your river. You live here. Blank stare. Sir, don’t throw those sacks in the river, they contaminate it. Give it to the garbage men when they come by. They don’t come by here. Oh. But…

One of my children’s favorite books is about an old man who, after years of picking up bags and bags of trash outside of his house, and becoming more and more resentful about it, discovered one day that he had POWER over trash. With a flick of his finger he could make improperly discarded trash fly back and stick on its owner for good. It’s called "The Wartville Wizard", by Don Madden. It’s a great read. When the entire town finally went out to confront him, he looked upon them, and said: “Hello, slobs!” After hearing a piece of his mind, they felt ashamed and promised to not do it again.

However much I have dreamed of doing this, I don’t think the wizard resolved anything. The townspeople acted out of fear, and fear is a short-lived motivator. The forces that mold our sense of individual and collective purpose are attraction to beauty and thirst for knowledge. Surely, these were the Wizard’s next projects.

Attraction to beauty is an inborn magnet that pulls our heart towards decency and nobility, towards acts of generosity, solidarity and friendship, draws out love for the majesty, harmony and diversity of nature, and compels us to express and contemplate these sentiments through art. Clearly it is manifested when we appreciate the magnificence of an ideal, the elegance of a scientific theory and the perfection of universal principles. Significantly, it is the motor behind our search for meaning and purpose, which extends to desire for order in social and administrative relationships.

So, what guides and motivates people who throw trash in the street? At first glace it would seem that these people have been deprived of this sense. However, upon a closer look it is apparent that while overdeveloping a warped sense of feminine corporal beauty, they have underdeveloped this innate sense when it requires seeing nature as an extension of oneself. Nature is a sphere of life that does not concern us; it is out there to be dealt with as needed. Just as we can choose to develop certain qualities of our personality over others, we can also let the river that is popular culture take us downstream at its will. In places so deprived of basic quality education like Ecuador (as well as in places not so deprived), this stream leads more often than not to the ocean of trash. Trashy music, food, entertainment, relationships, words, habits, etc… It saddens to see people with such joyous, receptive and generous hearts let them absorb such enormous amounts of rubbish.

The Wartville Wizard maintained his distance from the townspeople because he couldn’t communicate with them; the abyss that separated them from him prevented him from understanding their plight. Their subsequent shame and promises failed to change this; they were still slobs in his mind. The real lesson here is that the Wizard needed to change as much as the townspeople, but because he thought he was right about the trash bit, he couldn’t see it this way. Judging others relegated him to weirdo status, and weird people can’t teach normal people anything, except through fear of course.

I couldn’t say anything to my busmate today because I am weird to him, which puts part of the burden of change on me if I want to open people’s hearts. If I want to help my friend develop his innate sense of attraction to true beauty, to extend his own sense of self perception to mother nature, I have to begin by exuding a beautiful character, one that connects hearts, inspires and most importantly, learns from others.