Rice and Responsibility


I have internet access here.  And I do have my phone.  I’m still going with my massive love of coffee.  (And the coffee here?  Fantastic.)  It’s just life.  Different, to be sure, but still fairly normal.  Everywhere I go, though – I’m constantly looking for everything not-American I can find.  All the flavors.  The views.  The shops and décor.  This is why I love traveling.  I want it to be as different as possible from my daily life.  I don’t want to come in and just observe everything from afar while staying so comfortable in my American ways.  The world is so big, so open, so different.

I’ve realized over the last ten years that I’ve been overseas for some of the biggest moments in recent American history. I was in London and Cape Town during the election, as the world waited to see whether President Obama or Mr. Romney would be taking over the White House for the next four years.  (And believe you me, the American election is massive news everywhere else in the world.)

And years ago, I was sitting in Ruth & Sandy’s living room in Dundee, Scotland, in March 2003, when President Bush declared war in Iraq.  It was the middle of the night, but we sat up and waited.  And waited.  And watched.  I was still in high school.  It was my first time out of the country, and here there I was watching everything change overnight for my world.

I think that moment completely colored my entire view of the war, honestly.  Instead of being surrounded by what I’d always been surrounded by, I was sitting with people who were asking – in all seriousness – What happens if the United States decides they don’t like the government of Ireland next? 

What do you say to that? 

It wasn’t that they were against the US fighting injustice around the world.  They were very much for it, in fact.  But – it was also that they were very cognizant of the fact that our ways of doing things might not be the best thing 100% of the time.  Maybe they were right.  Or maybe the US did all of these amazing things overseas that we’re never going to hear about.  Maybe – in some alternate history universe – we averted nuclear war.  Maybe we averted the entire meltdown of Iraq.  Maybe we brought at least the beginnings of freedom to a world that was so closed off before.  I don’t know.  And I think all the questions like that could kill a person.

But it made me realize that – in everything, not just in the government or international relations – that we can’t just fling ourselves into something without first taking the time to step back.  Is this truly what’s best for the region?  Is this truly what’s in everyone’s best interests? 

Food drops & feeding everyone.

I was talking with a friend of mine recently about all of the UN food drops around the world.  In one hand, they’re SO helpful, and in so many situations, they are SO needed.   Feed the hungry.  It’s not that hard, and we have been blessed with SO SO SO much.  When we hang on to everything we have with razor-sharp claws, our hearts get all twisted up and ugly.  Mine.  Not yours.  Not ever.  We become the worst versions of ourselves, the school bully gone extreme.  We become grasping, greedy misers who not only refuse to meet the needs of those around us, but refuse to even see or acknowledge them.  We become the worst of humanity.  So – for crying out loud – go feed people.  But – there’s another level we have to look at.  And in a lot of ways it’s the most important one.

Let’s look at rice. 

Sometimes in a way, we think we’re being all awesome when we swoop in with a million pounds of rice and start handing it out for free.  And in so many situations – like after emergencies or bombings or in very war-torn lands – those million pounds of rice is literally all that’s standing between little kids and complete starvation.  So you hand it out with the best of them. You’re taking care of part of the problem.

And as always, fixing some of the problem is better than fixing none of it. 

But what comes next? 

Do we keep handing out the rice, ad infinitum?  Is that helpful?  Yes, maybe we feed a lot of people for a long time.  But what about the local rice growers providing for their families who are now completely out of business?  Why pay for your rice when you can get the same rice just down the street for free?  It also creates this very weird power struggle where – instead of bringing true long-term health to a region – it ends up being this savior-savee relationship that totally strips local people of their culture, their heart and their dignity.  Total fail.

This is a whole thing I can get into… the different cultures of the world are incredibly valuable and beyond needed. To destroy those cultures is to destroy part of what makes us a human race.  It’s part of the beauty and variety that make up the whole planet.  We’ll save that for another blog.

But just imagine what the world would look like if we worked from both sides of the issue.

It’s not just about feeding people once, it’s about working with them in the confines and spirit of their own cultures to create a stronger future for them.  For instance, let’s say you’re going into an agricultural community that’s just been wiped out by flooding.  So – you bring in food to meet the immediate needs of the community. Of course.  But then – instead of looking around and going, “You know what the world needs?  A manufacturing community.  Or a community that grows corn, not other vegetables”  — you invest in what’s already happening for them.  You show them better ways to grow what they’re already growing.  You help them invest in better farming equipment and better compost.  You give them ownership in creating the future for their own community.  You give them the chance to fix things and celebrate when they have sorted it out and made the world better for their kids. You don’t just keep handing them rice and wondering why everyone’s spirits seem devastated.

Short term, the rice brings life.  Long term, the rice brings death to a region – physically, mentally and spiritually.  Something in the system is broken.

Even as an American coming into this beautiful city, I was terrified of coming in as the loud, crazy American and totally screwing everything up.  I wanted to blend in, to simply absorb myself into the culture so deeply that I could just learn and basically sit at the feet of these people who’ve been living here for so long.  And I’m quickly falling in love with Cape Town in so many ways.

But I want Cape Town to change me, not necessarily the other way around.

I’m incredibly grateful that I live in America.  Like crazy grateful.

Don’t get me wrong.  I can travel pretty much the world over with no issues at all.  I can live out my dreams of being a writer, working in Hollywood without having to reassess my visa situation every year.

But quite seriously – in the words of Peter Parker’s uncle – with great power comes great responsibility. 

And that responsibility is one we can’t overlook or take for granted.  We are not the savior of the world, that’s for sure.

But neither are we responsibility-free.

And it’s in that fine, razor-edged dichotomy that we get to live.

And now it’s our move.  What’s next?

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