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Columbia Missourian

Society values wealth and conveniences more than personal relationships

By Rose Nolen
September 24, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT
Rose M. Nolen

A friend’s sister is engaged in missionary work in a primitive African village. Because she is living without what we in America would describe as basic necessities, her sister is worried. When I told her that I was finding indoor plumbing, telephones and electricity less valuable all the time, she was shocked.

You know, it is true that we have probably the highest standard of living on the planet, but I’m not really sure we have the best quality of life. I began thinking that many years ago when I took a class on the anthropology of aging. That’s when I discovered that, as Americans, we don’t really treat our elderly as well as people in other parts of the world treat theirs. Some cultures revere the elderly and give them the best of care, whereas most of us confine ours into institutional living and some tend to forget they are alive.


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And as much as we claim to love children, thousands of them are forced into prostitution rings and others become the easy victims of sexual predators. We may spend an enormous amount of money to buy them clothes and whatever material items they want, but we don’t invest time and caring in them. The truth is that we are so much about money (and in order to survive, we have to be) that we are too exhausted at the end of the work day to really think about our relationships with other people.

And as much as we like to think so, not all Americans enjoy the comforts and conveniences that some of us take for granted. There are many homeless families among us. And, so very often, it is not the honest and true citizens who do well, but the scum of the earth that profit from our enterprise. In other words, as human beings we have not progressed at the same rate as our technology.

Contentment, as we all know, has little to do with our financial circumstances. How many people with portfolios loaded with stocks and bonds are operating under heavy medication or in and out of rehabilitation clinics? Unfortunately, our obsession with money has brought many of us to the point where we can think of little else. It truly has become not only the bottom line, but the only line by which we measure success.

Other friends who joined our discussion were aghast when they learned the missionaries had to slaughter their own chickens before cooking them on the camp fire. It’s questionable whether that is worse than purchasing your meat at the grocery store without the country of origin label on it.

When I hear so many ugly stories about life in America, I’m perhaps beginning to look at our technology and economic progress with a jaundiced eye. Undoubtedly, we don’t spend a lot of time studying ourselves and the kind of people we have become. Frankly, I’m absolutely thrilled that we produced individuals, such as missionaries, who want to go out in the world and help others. While I frown sometimes at their philosophies and the motives behind their efforts, I still have to respect their willingness to put aside their own priorities to enrich the lives of others.

Americans have long enjoyed a reputation for their generosity and willingness to try to improve the lives of strangers. That, I think, is a hardship faced by the middle class today, when their own opportunities are becoming so limited that they are no longer able to reach out to others. In the early days of our country’s history, the rich felt compelled to make the country a better place. These days the rich seem only to be interested in making themselves richer and the country poorer. And so it has been largely up to the middle class to try to volunteer and contribute to the country’s best interests.

Still, I think it is a good idea for us to pause occasionally to look at the way we live and compare our lifestyles to those of people in other countries. Does our food supply really measure up to the highest standards or has the need for some people to get rich allowed them to reduce safety requirements? Have we really reached the point where we will sell our children or their bodies to keep money in our pockets? Does it no longer matter whether they play with lead painted toys, eat toxic food or be seduced by low-life sexual predators?

I can understand that in these unsettling times when the mortgage holders have a noose around one’s neck and the cost of food and energy is skyrocketing, it’s hard to find time to worry about the quality of life. Still, we need to do that. It’s way too easy to lose one’s moral and ethical principles in the effort to stay alive.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves every day to define the true meaning of life. Is it about living or having? The answer is in the eyes of your children, wherever they are.

Think about it.