0317 – On “different” people, and the elitism of social justice.

I just realized one thing: I have very low tolerance towards people who think differently than I do. I say “different” in quotation marks because the word different is redundant, for each of us is always different from one another hence there is no same people. We gather and form communities with others around similar interests and take comfort in the sense of belonging, but there is no denying that we all have our differences. As I continue to work with the happiness movement and attempt to surround myself with people who share similar passions, I find myself to be less willing to empathize with people who are different. I get annoyed at people who don’t understand social justice. I don’t get why people don’t understand that GDP is inadequate, or that Americans are grossly overworked. I frown upon overzealous shoppers. And materialistic people. And the wealthy who doesn’t donate. I look down on people who take jobs because they want the money. And people who can’t be bothered to think about what they are passionate about.

I’ve lost a lot of patience.

This might be a result of my overly structured days in college, where meetings and classes and gatherings and catching up with friends fill up my calendar in a way that I’m constantly going from one thing to another. However, another key thought has been wandering around my mind. As I continue to wear my passion on my sleeves, I start to believe in the cause that I fight for more and more. I start to believe that I am right. And when I believe I’m right, it seems natural that the people who are different are wrong.

In the fight for environmental conservation and social justice, we sometimes talk about value systems, and that there’re some certain values that are associated with being eco-friendly or a social justice ally. So, then, are we trying to change people’s values? And are some people’s values better than others’? The question then becomes: Is social justice elitist?

Someone told me that the brand of social justice that I grew up with at the University of Michigan tends to be elitist. “Michigan tends to preach it that way,” he said. So perhaps my view is biased, but I do know that I’ve never really thought about the highly convolved nature of empathy and social activism. To me, it is important to do this work, realizing that we come from different places, have different privileges, hold different values and hold different thoughts. Social or environmental activism should mean fighting for equality, not because we are superior, but because we are privileged–privileged not only in upbringing but also in the ability to carry out this work and to live our values. When we try to induce change in people, we should do so not with contempt, but with love and compassion. Our values are not superior; simply different. All-inviting, all-loving.

In my opinion, the challenge is not simply to find kindred souls who keep you fighting the fight, but finding those who keep you fighting the right way. How you live after you find your place in this world is perhaps as important as how you find your place. Only those who are willing and able to exercise empathy will truly maximize the impact of their work and find the peace that lies within.

I write this post not partially to try to convince myself of this. I have a long way to go in my journey. At this moment, I am discouraged. But the journey continues. As it always does.

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0316 – The Kingdom of Bhutan

Another long overdue post. Jeez. I need to do a better job of documenting my travels. These posts just take a lot out of me mentally as I get older.

Anyhow, I was lucky to have been able to visit my #1 destination in the world at the age of 21. Bhutan, due to the creation of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and its role in sparking the global conversation about happiness, has been one of my dream vacations. I wanted to more than see the scenery, which in itself is worthy of a trip, but also understand the people and feel the country. I wanted to know how GNH impacts the mood and livelihood of the people.

To get into Bhutan, you need to be accompanied by an official tour guide recognized by the country. The cost of entering the country is rather high, at around USD 250 per day. Tour operators sprouted up quickly as Bhutan grows more popular as a tourist destination. I traveled on a standard 9-day itinerary that included a lot of sightseeing and sitting in the car, so my vacation trip didn’t really allow for as much talking to the locals as I wanted, but I still enjoyed the lush green scenery and could feel the calmness and quiet bliss in the air.

Here are some pictures:

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Most of our stops in Bhutan were to dzongs–administrative centers that housed both administrative offices and temples, and monasteries built anywhere between the7th century to late 1900s. Cultural preservation in this country is amazing–the legends, folklores, and architecture seem mostly intact. Bhutanese are very proud of their culture too. The nationalism here is as strong as anywhere else in the world, and is undoubtedly bolstered by the existence of the monarchy.

Bhutan’s current king during his wedding ceremony.
The words of wisdom of the 4th king of Bhutan

As a citizen of a country with a constitutional monarchy as well, I loved seeing how the royal family has done so much for the country. It’s a powerful reminder of how when hierarchical superiority does not corrupt, it can serve the entity well.

Bhutanese live simple lives. Many people sell fruits and home-cooked food along the streets. Most of the citizens still work in the agriculture sector–some even milked their cows on the streets as we passed by! They don’t have much of the modern technology that we do, but with the opening of the country, it’ll be interesting to see how the country will transform. The core of Bhutan is its religion–Buddhism. Bhutanese are very religious. Monks are highly revered in the country, and you can see prayer wheels and prayer flags all over the country. Their main tourist attractions were monasteries (dzongs as they call them) and their pristine nature. Anyway, I’m not going to say much more. I’ll let the pictures speak for me. My fascination with the Gross National Happiness indicator has definitely opened me up to a whole new world, and I have Bhutan to thank for that.

0315 – Liberia: Liberated, but Not Free

This is a long over due post about my trip to Liberia almost a year ago.

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This tiny country of Liberia has shed light on many of the contemporary issues of our time. I remembered watching a documentary about Liberia and learning about some very nasty things that have happened in the past. I remembered being so angry at some of the things that the U.S. had done—or had not done—simply to look after its own interests. This supposed “best country in the world” has, at best, a tainted past. I bring this up not to create friction, but to shed light on the fact that nobody is perfect. It is easy to ignore things we are not proud of and claim that the modus operandi works, because it does not. The current way of life, based upon the pursuit of GDP, wealth and fame, is creating immense unhappiness and lost souls. There needs to be a new way of doing things. We can no longer make everyone conform to a single construct.

The people in Liberia live with whatever they can afford, sometimes less than the necessities. Some did not have potable water, and some only had a few sets of clothing. In the month we were there, we saw about 10 students who got sick, about half of whom had malaria and another half had typhoid. Our well water supply was visibly tainted with an orange substance, most likely due to the rust. Although we had the privilege of using bottled mineral water, some of the students there brushed their teeth, drank and showered with that water.

Yet, the students we met there seemed happy. Although they just came out of a civil war, they were content with their lives and were determined to effect positive change in their country in the future. They hung out with their friends and families, and that gave them happiness. We do not need all the possessions that we desire to be truly. Happiness is not about extravagance, fame or excess. It is about relationships, passion, wisdom, and so much more.

We owe our ability to live comfortably in large part due to the newly minted wealth passed to us from our parents’ generation. My friends and I speak about the intergenerational shift from a time where we work to make ends meet to a time where we work to discover meaning in our lives. It is indeed a fascinating transformation for with wealth comes both privilege and responsibility: privilege to be able to identify and ponder issues that our wealth shelters us from, and responsibility to ensure that we act on those issues. I remembered the time when I was in Liberia and saw how people simply had to make ends meet each and every day. There was no other option. Survival was the priority. While I was there, I started thinking about why I work on sustainability. It seemed as if sustainability was a first world problem! I was privileged to be able to care about sustainability actively. I thought about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and where I stood on the pyramid. Not everyone was at the apex, and that is why I do my work—to get everyone to the top. Whether you believe in Maslow’s Hierarchy is, to me, secondary. The argument I am trying to make here is that many of us have privileged identities without knowing so, because that is how privilege works; it does not bother you. But there comes a point when you realize that these issues are worth thinking about, and there comes a point when you realize that justice has to be fought for.

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