Paul Andersen: A woman of perspective
September 22, 2003
In the aftermath of 9/11, writer Barbara Kingsolver visited the Grand Canyon. She needed inspiration to return to a sense of normalcy, to find a measure of balance beyond the horror and disaster.
“I never knew what grand really was until I saw the canyon,” she wrote in an essay, “Saying Grace.” “It’s a perspective that pulls the busy human engine of desires to a quiet halt. Taking the long view across that vermilion abyss attenuates humanity to quieter internal rhythms, the spirit of ice ages – there is a chance we might be small enough not to matter.”
Standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon and gazing over the firmament of rock and air, Kingsolver discovered the perspective she needed. “How much more could one earth offer me than to lay herself bare, presenting me with the whole of her bedrock history in one miraculous view?”
It was Thanksgiving Day, and Kingsolver, like many Americans, wondered what to give thanks for in the wake of 9/11. How, she wondered, could she rectify to herself the terrible human toll. A parable emerged.
“Imagine that you come from a large family in which one brother ended up with a whole lot more than the rest of you. Imagine his gorgeous house on a huge tract of forests, rolling hills and fertile fields.”
This wealthy brother, she writes, lives a profligate lifestyle within view of his relations, most of whom are starving and doing without. The wealthy brother shows off his material wealth while the others suffer, watching as his unscrupulous appetites pollute the air and decimate the land.
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“For most of my life I’ve felt embarrassed by a facet of our national character that I would have to call prideful wastefulness,” writes Kingsolver. “What other name can there be for our noisy, celebratory appetite for unnecessary things, and our vast carelessness regarding their manufacture and disposal?”
Kingsolver does more than wring her hands over 9/11, she seeks a reason. She asks why, following the tragedy, Americans were urged to “go shopping” rather than to probe their collective conscience for a new perspective on America and the world.
“For some, ‘wartime’ became a matter of waving our pride above the waste, with slogans that didn’t make sense to me; ‘Buy for your country’ struck me as an exhortation to ‘erase from your mind what just happened.'”
What perplexed her most was the charge by American zealots: “Our enemies hate us because we’re free.” Canada is free, writes Kingsolver, but that doesn’t make Canada a terrorist target. She then poses a rhetorical question when she wonders why America is a target.
“We were asked not to think very much about the other side of the world, where, night after night, we were waging a costly war in a land whose people could not dream of owning cars or in some cases even shoes. Hubris isn’t just about luck or wealth, it’s about throwing away food while hungry people watch.”
Kingsolver concludes that material excess as described by the American lifestyle has perpetrated an imperialistic assault on the rest of the world, that the disproportionate allocation of wealth and resources is a grievous cause of global instability and environmental degradation.
“We must surely appear to the world as exactly what we are: a nation that organizes its economy around consuming twice as much oil as it produces, and around the profligate wastefulness of the wars and campaigns required to defend such consumption.”
Paul Andersen wonders if the Grand Canyon could inspire similar reflection in us all. His column appears every Monday.
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