On a recent venture into downtown Toronto, I learned a few things about our modern, Canadian, urban culture. My appointment at the hospital necessitated an early morning trek on the train, then subway. At least the experience would help me to understand just a little of the “daily grind” as I mingled with the mass of humanity that regularly make their way to work in the early hours of each day. And as often as I make this trip, I am always conscious of how fast one can get lost in the great migration. I quickly learned I would need to stand behind a pillar or some other immovable object to avoid being trampled by the rush of bodies hurrying past in their effort to beat the clock.
Moving as well as I was able, I approached the doors that would take me into the subway station. No more than three feet ahead of me, a young woman crashed through the heavy door and rushed on, leaving me to struggle to keep the door open as I followed in her wake. . Without missing a beat, she hurried through the second door and again charged on, taking no notice that I was so close behind and again the door began to close in my face.
I am always embarrassed at how I have to relearn each year the subway entry protocol. One dare not stand in the way of progress, that is, the continuing surge of people making its way to the subway platform. To gain my bearings, I stand to the side, read all the information I can find and finally resign myself to seeking out a friendly face who can assist me to find the right place to await the train lest I end up going in the wrong direction. This done, with the arrival of the subway train, I wait for passengers to alight then step onto the train to find a place to sit. The lone vacant seat is taken up by a young man, with ear-buds firmly planted. And, as he energetically moves his fingers rhythmically across the face of his iPod, he is oblivious to the fact that he is really sitting on two seats and a single female passenger is fighting to stay standing as the train lurches forward.
There is no denying that North American culture exalts individualism. How easy it is to pretend to or even to deliberately ignore the world around us with the excuse that we must be careful not to intrude on the personal space of another. But modern culture has taken this a step further, and I think or at least hope, without even realizing it, that we intentionally block out of consciousness the presence of others by clipping on the ear phones and turning up the volume of the iPod. We talk into our cell phones so that everyone within a ten-foot radius can hear the one-sided conversation. (You sure can learn a lot about someone from these “conversations” – their love-life, business ambitions, guests for this evening’s dinner party etc.) Interestingly enough, we chat on the social networks for the world to see as if our conversations were private, yet purposely close ourselves off from the world around us by ignoring the passers-by. Could this be a new take on the story of the Good Samaritan?
African culture, on the other hand, exalts the “we”. An African philosopher has said, “We are, therefore, I am”. While North Americans cherish individuality, Africans hold tight to the importance of community. The danger in this ideal is that individuals are tied to a society that has lost its meaning for many because the source of the “rules” has become remote and irrelevant. Furthermore, it can be a justification for exalting tribal biases and prejudices in the interest of safeguarding the “we” which may be nothing more than a glorified “me”. The extension of “me” is my family, my clan, my tribe.
Me 2 We
Can the positive aspects of these two paradigms be embraced, that is respecting the individuality of people and recognizing that we are all unique while realizing that we belong to the bigger body – each being part of the whole. We cannot live in isolation and ignore the rest of the world or pretend it doesn’t exist. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit the Gleaners in the Okanagon Valley in British Columbia. Produce, that otherwise would be thrown out because of “imperfections” is collected, dried and packaged for making soup, then distributed to areas of the world where hunger is very real. Most of the process is done by volunteers (I participated with them cutting shallots). A primary school in Ontario is collecting school supplies and shoes to help a school in Kenya. Children in the Me 2 We Club are heading up this project. In August, several members of my family and I will have the opportunity to take what has been collected to the school in Kenya.
You have heard it said “stop and smell the roses” since we are always in such a rush that we miss out on the little things around us. But could it be that we need to take off the iPod, put down the cell phone and see what is going on around us?
Click below to view power point (Catherine Hogeboom Armstrong) from Lincoln Ave. Public School, Me 2 We Club project: