Tuning Out the Pain

Back in 2010 I spent the summer camping, hunting, and gold-panning up in Alaska. After months of preparation, a friend and I hitchhiked around 50 miles outside of Fairbanks and set off into the woods. We didn’t find any gold, had no success fishing, and the mosquitoes were insane. Despite this, it was an incredible trip, and an experience that I will never forget.

The thing that stood out to me the most about the trip has always been the simple beauty of the untouched forest around us. We had a fast-flowing frigid river and a few green hills to look at. The air was fresh, the wildlife plentiful and free, and our days were our own.

A few days ago I watched a short movie about a man who lived in Alaska for 30 years. I had read a book about his time there before the trip, and this video really did a good job showing the beauty of the area surrounding his lodge. In the video Mr. Proenneke points out the ugliness we drive and walk by every day while living in cities and suburbs. In his photography and writing, you can see his point.

I would take what he is saying one step further. Many of us tune out the pain and suffering all around us. This happens through our culture, and physically through the fact that we spend so much time in our private smartphone world in public. Sometimes that suffering is obvious, but we ignore it – seeing the homeless or needy on the street and walking past. Other times it is more implicit – driving a little faster or more carefully as you pass through a poorer neighborhood to get to a store in a richer one.

I feel this so much more acutely after spending a few months in the Dominican Republic. While there I was quiet a lot (because I was learning the language). The trash everywhere and the physical hardship the people underwent on a daily basis left a deep impression on me. I believe, mostly because of my American lens, that if they picked up their trash in town more, people would feel more fulfilled because their town would look nicer. The problem is, where would they put the trash? There is no trash service, the cycle is open.

Here in the United States we have so many government services that we take for granted, and people with housing and jobs and education live so far mentally and physically from people in need that it is easy to ignore the pain. Our civic culture is under threat, both structurally and through our own individual actions. Services like Netflix, Amazon, and Plated increase the divide. We have few regular activities that cross socioeconomic boundaries. As Mr. Proenneke points out, people don’t work hard enough anymore to appreciate comfort. In our fatuous obsession with material wealth, we have built for ourselves a life that doesn’t allow us to be satisfied, and that does allow us to ignore the pain and suffering all around us.

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