Recently I was boarding an airplane and I was amused by the silliness of the boarding procedure. Of course I understand the efficiency of boarding in groups and all that, but the thing where the first class passengers walk across the blue carpet, then they close that “lane” and have the rest of us schmucks walk in a different “lane.” Dumb.
And yesterday, I got a call from my primary care physician. He’s firing me as a patient. He only wants to be a doctor to rich people. Of course, I see all the benefits to him, and to his patients, but when it comes down to it, he only wants to serve the “haves.”
I have a good friend. We don’t see eye-to-eye on political stuff. He’s a solid right-wing guy and I’m solidly “undecided” in every presidential election. But on this one thing we agree; the growing gap between the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” doesn’t bode well for the American future. I like to say, that the gap can only grow so far before you get a major rebellion by the “have nots” that leads to violence (e.g. The French Revolution).
And the reason I’m writing about these things is because it’s symptomatic of an American distinction between what’s yours and mine. My house is mine. It’s not yours. Your car is yours, not mine. This is the way we think, the way we act, the way we live. Even the most altruistic among us have limits. Even the most generous of us still has a sense of what’s ours and what’s yours.
That’s why as I was reading a book this morning, I was really struck by a comparison of African tribal culture to American culture. The book is called Poor Millionaires. (And btw, I LOVE this book. It’s a great story, hits on a lot of great ideas, and it’s really well-written!)
The two authors – one raised in suburban Minneapolis, the other in a nomadic, Kenyan tribe – met at a Christian college, and in their first encounter, the African (Michael) say to Nathan, “Can I drive our truck,” referring to Nathan’s truck. After Nathan corrects Michael, “Our truck?” Michael explains:
“Oh, sorry. I don’t mean to offend. In Africa, we have a saying, ‘I am,’ — he pointed at himself — ‘because we are’ — he pointed at me. ‘We are because I am.'”
He continues a little bit later,
“In my tribe it is impolite to say ‘this is my cow’ or this is my hut.’ Instead we say this is ‘our cow,’ or ‘our hut.’ We don’t own things in the same way people seem to here in America. In fact, if I were to drive this truck to the village and say, ‘This is my truck,’ the elders would get so furious and say something like, ‘No, Kimpur (his African name), this is our truck because you are one of us.'”
I know that changing American culture isn’t really going to happen. We aren’t going to ever think like nomadic Africans. And I don’t really even think that American Christians can change this about ourselves. It’s too deep, too ingrained, to much a part of us.
But maybe there our ways that I can live more with the mentality of “ours” than I currently do. What if it’s better to live this way? What if being part of something is more satisfying than having something?
This past winter was really bleak for Jennifer and I. And at Christmastime – knowing we were living in a small-for-six-people apartment that faced north and literally got no sunshine – some new friends offered us their house to use for Christmas as they were headed out-of-town for a week. “What’s ours is yours,” he said, as he handed me the key. “And I don’t want this back.”
And I believe him – to a point. I don’t think what’s really his is ours. I don’t think he’d approve if I showed up after completing a run on the Rock Island Trail, threw my sweaty clothes in his laundry basket and jumped in his shower. That level of “ours-ness” may be an African reality, but it’s surely not an American sensibility. But, as I’ve gotten to know this friend, I think that he’s really trying to live in as open-handed a way as he can.
Couldn’t we all create a bit more of a sense of ours? Couldn’t we all let go of our possessions, our time, our energy, our pursuits so that we could share more? I know that I sure could…