What are you thankful for? I find sometimes that asking myself this question is a helpful exercise as I sit on my front porch in the early African morning with my coffee, looking out over the mists which still cling gently to the green and the dawn-birds searching for that last worm or spider before they all take refuge from the pounding African sun. Up above my little boy is just waking. A steam rises delicately from my cup, the aroma of a place quiet and clean and safely tucked away from Africa’s camps. I haven’t yet become embroiled in the day’s battles; my mind is still clear and fresh from sleep and I can examine things in their natural state.
I walk through the dewy grass out onto my back porch, to gaze through the concertina wire into a makeshift village which has popped up while nobody was looking in a green area which is supposed to be a city park. Big holes dug into the ground as tilapia ponds; cement walls under zinc roof, wooden doors and windows; smoke drifting upwards from the outdoor kitchen, breakfast cooked over pieces of artisanal charcoal which is ruining the continent. Cows and ducks and goats – all signs of prosperity in Africa. Juxtaposed against the camps, they must be thankful. But I wonder, are they?
I used to live in Dubai, for a season, and I would often engage the Pakistani cab drivers who would ferry me from one super-mall to another. “I live in one room,” they would tell me, “with 10 other drivers. We have come together. We work 12 hour shifts; and once a year we go home.” To Islamabad, to Lahore or to Peshawar or Karachi. And then he would smile, “I am providing for my family and saving for my restaurant; thanks God.”
Then, for a time, I lived in Venezuela. An expensive apartment in an expensive part of town, one of those with private elevators and a little guard station out front which monitored the entrance, allowing or denying access in order to assure the security of the residences from the perilous lands outside. A service we all paid for through the condo fees; a doorman of sorts I suppose, but not in the Fifth Avenue way. One day I realized that one of the guards had been missing for a while. “What happened?” I asked the building manager. “He was fired.” “Oh?” I asked, “Why was that?” It seems he had been, calentando las orejas, ‘warming the ears’ of the other building staff. Warming the ears, a lovely Venezuelan turn of phrase for bitter whispering, malicious and petty and mean. “We control access to the doors!” he had been telling the other doormen. “We can even deny them entry, until they give us what we want. Why should they have the right to live up there, while we are down here – and we control access to the doors?” Those were in the heady days of Hugo Chavez; when his political project was just beginning.
Our joy depends upon how we look at life. How we look at ourselves; and against whom do we juxtapose our own existence. I live in a nice house in Africa. Internet, electricity, air conditioning. To most Africans I am the .1%. To the Fifth Avenue crowd I am perhaps ‘middle-class’, at best. To a Pakistani cab driver I am just another American going from one mall to the next; for a Venezuelan communist I am a foot soldier of oppression, a perpetually flashing neon sign that there are people in the rung of the ladder above him, a ladder he must force his way up through violence and blood. Its all very complicated, isn’t it?
Back to Africa. Not far from where I sit, are the camps. Dozens, hundreds, thousands spread across this hard continent. I have written about the camps – cultural appropriation, those who don’t know the camps might call it. But no matter, because those who understand how ruin happens will call it what it is, empathy; and will know I have earned the right. Empathy is the leavening agent for gratitude, and gratitude is the enzyme which catalyzes action; as the opposite of envy, which is the leavening agent for greed and catalyzes violence.
So I ask you, this morning. Who are you? Are you a hard working Pakistani cab-driver anxious to build and hold something for his little boy? Are you a bitter doorman who only can see the comings and goings of your oppressors? Are you protesting something, or are you building something? Do you want to take, or do you want to give back? And, this morning, is there something you are thankful for?
Because gratitude infused in public policy is sacrifice; while envy weaponized into law is socialism. And we are, even today, trying to decide in which type of society we want to live. As for me, I have already decided. What about you?