Sunday, November 25, 2012

If you're thankful you need to show it

Previously published, Thanksgiving Day, 2012, in the Terre Haute Tribune Star


No doubt, during Thanksgiving week Americans are in a thankful mood. Take away the national cue to give thanks, are we a thankful people the other 51 weeks of the year? Much suggests we take much for granted, that we assume the incredible affluence that characterizes the American lifestyle, that we feel entitled to the newest, the best and the most. We take our freedoms and the relationships in our life for granted.

The prevailing culture in the United States is “individualism.” And despite some who claim that individualism is dying or dead, my conversations with international students and with immigrants about their struggles to understand the individualistic American leads me to conclude individualism is quite robust.

“Individualism,” in short, refers to the exaltation of the individual person over the group, including family, church and state. A child learning the culture of individualism would learn such things as follow your own path, to do what you want, to follow your own interests. The epitome of individualist culture is for a person to do what they want, without regard to what others think. It is an ideology of self-sufficiency, economic independence, and self-determined values and morality. In short, it is the passionate pursuit of self-interest and those interests are determined selfishly.

Think about it. If you do it yourself, who do you thank?

It matters little about the facts on the ground whether we actually do it ourselves or we are dependent on a myriad number of others to achieve our self-interest. If we believe we did it ourselves, then does it matter? If we believe we build a successful company on our own, despite the taxpayer-paid-for infrastructure, public education of the company’s employees, and Social Security providing social insurance for their employees, who do we thank for the good outcomes? If we believe we did it ourselves, is there any need to thank anyone?

Radical individualists go so far as to view gratitude as superfluous. If everyone is just pursuing their self-interest, then a kindness or even what appears to be a “selfless” act is not that at all, but just another example of a person pursuing their self-interest. Do I need to thank someone who just did something for themselves and not for me? A child has no need to be thankful for parents because parents are just pursuing their self-interest. A radical individualist would not view Jesus Christ as giving himself up for our sins. Instead he was pursuing self-interest, he did it for himself, the forgiveness of our sins is just a residual benefit of his own radical pursuit of self-interest. It’s no different than the rich person who builds a grand home in the neighborhood enhancing the value of your home.

What about those who do show gratitude to others? Research suggests that showing gratitude can have measurable positive effects on people. Positive effects can be shown for mood, various hormones, pleasure-related neurotransmitters, the immune system, stress, heart health, blood pressure and blood sugar.

It seems like a good thing for people to show gratitude. It’s in one’s best self-interest with all those health benefits to show gratitude to those we feel thankful for. The trick it seems is to ignore the ideology of individualism, to recognize the inherent interdependent social basis and (at times selfless) cooperation that makes our world work, and show gratitude to those people who are important to us and reap the personal health benefits of doing so.

Give thanks to the important people in your life. Given the health benefits, nothing is more self-interested than being thankful and showing it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Measuring the march of time, culture in Morocco

TERRE HAUTE — I spent 10 days in Morocco in October. We were planning a study abroad trip for May 2013. My impression of Morocco, after a couple of days, was both familiar and “mysterious.” Familiar due to its French influences, Morocco was a French colony until 1956. In the capital city of Rabat it was hard not to think I was in a European city. That French was spoken, that signage was in French, that buildings reminded me of New Orleans, all made the first days in Morocco familiar and comfortable.

Just as my college French seemed to be coming back to me, as I got familiar with bon jour, oui, merci beaucoup and si’l vous plait, we moved from Rabat and its meetings with government officials to smaller towns, university officials, back-street cafes, and bold, stark landscapes. Then something happened. New feelings pushed in, as the familiar gave way to the unfamiliar … the more Arabic aspects of Morocco.

In Marrakesh we visited the largest public square in Morocco. The square and the large open-air market adjoining the square, has a frenetic energy. No fancy malls, no slick advertising, no sales promotions, just the raw energy of buyers and sellers negotiating a deal to mutual satisfaction.

In Essaouira I began to relax and feel comfortable with mysterious Morocco. Essaouira is a very old walled city on the Atlantic coast. Founded by the Portuguese in the 14th century, we stayed in an old Spanish style villa in the old medina. There we sat at a café, drinking atay, the traditional mint tea, watching the locals and tourists in the market, hearing the call to prayer at the three nearby mosques. On our way from Marrakesh, our driver, Mustafa, showed us various economic development projects, one a winery. We bought a bottle and after the sun was down, and the air cooler, we sat in the courtyard of the villa, the Riad Al Madina, enjoying the wine. Later, I restfully slept with the windows open to the cool dry air, with the deep, rough, powerful Atlantic but a few hundred yards away. I changed in Essaouira, I was beginning to see the real Moroc (as Morocco is called by Moroccans).

I’m fascinated by the way time is experienced in the culture of the land I am visiting. At first, Moroc felt like the industrial time that is America, an unrelenting industrial drum beat of time. Americans, even the laid back ones, are in a rush. Schedules, meetings, appointments, rush, rush, rush, in constant motion rushing from one thing to another. That was how our first days in Rabat were, rushing from meeting to meeting, place to place.

Moroccans, however, build in time for the pleasures of life, like eating. In Moroc, the most delicious and “artful” food can be served to you in McDonald’s-like time. On the streets and back alleys, a tajine (a conical-shaped “crock pot” cooked over hot coals) cooks all morning so as to be ready for lunch. One actually inspects the particular tajine, negotiates its price, then it’s served at your table. If it were McDonald’s, the food would be served then, and 10-12 minutes later, we’d be off to the next appointment. Not in Moroc. Time is really the secret spice in Moroccan cuisine. No meal is “fast.” “Hurry up” spoils the meal. Table talk is as important as the khobz (bread) served with every meal.

Order atay (Moroccan mint tea) and you get a small metal pot of boiling green tea with fresh mint and several large sugar cubes. It is not served ready to drink. The fresh mint must be added and let steep. Sugar must be added and mixed. Mixing is done by pouring the tea into a small, shot-glass sized glass, from a rather high distance to put a frothy head on the tea and then that is poured back into the pot, over and over and over. Until it is right. Time to get it right. Not clock time, but right to the taste.

Amidst the frenetic energy of the medina, the traffic of the boulevard, the time intensive march of modernity, Moroccans wait for the tea to be just right. How much have we lost in the U.S., especially in the important relationships in our lives, because time either rushes things or we find we don’t have enough time to get it right?

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