Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives. Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world, and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Just a bit more political...

I've been posting a lot on the nuclear disaster, which is still continuing, and I'll be putting together another follow up soon.  But I would like to get back to some of the larger themes in the book with a blog post just a bit more political.  I wrote the following piece in India, and it talks in a deeper way about the sources, in our own selves, of the poisoning of people and plants and animals and fish.  So here, in service of that, I offer the following:

What little girl at three years old, and tired, would refuse being carried up the stairs?  When I saw her reach up to the smiling young man, I could tell that she was used to being carried.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting help.  Each one of us humans is related to each other, and we all depend on each other.

But there are a couple of details that give me pause. I was in India when I saw this, traveling in the relatively richer region of Himachal Pradesh.  The man carrying the girl up the stairs was from another region, and he had darker skin.  In this area, all along the roads, living in the roadside shanties, doing jobs such as construction, shoveling stone,  carrying debris, or sweeping up trash, there are darker people.  Much darker.  They are not from this region, but from the desperately poor state of Bihar.  I didn't ask them their caste, but I can guess.  They do the dirty work, the harder work, the more dangerous work.  A few days before I saw the little girl and her caretaker, I saw one of these workers get casually smacked around by a lighter-skinned local truck driver.  The truck driver seemed to take it as his right.  Often these workers clothes are dirty, covered in ash and their faces show the expressions of the exhausted and worried and oppressed.
A man washes tourists' dishes in India

So, back to the little girl.  She was dressed in a nice white sweater, her hair was lightly coiffed, and she reached up pleadingly to her servant--perhaps it would be fairer to say her family’s servant--to pick her up.  He was a 15 year old boy, and he also had ash on his clothes.  I understood the relationship, and could see it being imprinted early on in the little girl's life.  He carried her up the stairs.

I should state that I was there, in that town in India, not having walked there, but because of the incredible leverage of petroleum (and of course all the wars incumbent upon its delivery to some people and not to others.)  Another way to say this is that something besides my own steam brought me there (i.e. the whole crazy world system).  That that same system powers the computer I write this blog post on now, and sends this message to your eyes. 

Now relying on others is not all necessarily a problem, because, as Masanori Oe so elegantly wrote (chapter 11), we are all alive by means of each other. 

But an important message that I was hoping to convey in A Different Kind of Luxury is the deep and satisfying value of doing things for yourself.   Self-reliance:  there’s an ethical aspect to it.   

In fact, when an Indian man of limited English asked me about my book, I tried to explain it to him in simple terms.  He said, with some admiration, “So it’s a book of moral education?”  I replied, a bit embarrassed, “Well, not exactly...”

Donkeys carry propane up the mountains for tourists in Nepal
I was brought up in our culture of "live and let live", and we are taught to avoid telling others how they should live.  I think this is correct.  And so A Different Kind of Luxury is a book of stories, not prescriptions, or advice.  It is not a self-help book and it is not “7 Steps to a Simpler Life.” I resisted much pressure to not let the book become something like that.

However, every day, we are all making decisions, sometimes consciously sometimes unconsciously about “What am I going to pay other people to do, and what should I do myself?” 

Who cleans our toilets, cares for our yard, repairs the roof, grows the food we eat, prepares and serves it?  Of course it’s a time saver for someone else to do it for us, but we have to remember to ask ourselves, case by case, "Is this right?"

I hope that in reading A Different Kind of Luxury people reflect also on their own lives, and think about who is doing things for us, and what the cost might be to them.  I hope that they then try to make such decisions more consciously, and try to reduce the negative impact that our desires and demands have on other people. 

And that means not getting carried up the stairs, even when we’re tired, even when we’re cranky. 

Tourists have breakfast in front of beautiful scenery
The good news is that we actually can gain so much from doing things for ourselves.  We build physical strength, and emotional strength, and also strength of character.  By not having someone else carry us up the stairs, we also (surprise!) can build a life of deeper fulfillment.  Speaking from my own experience, which I very rarely do in A Different Kind of Luxury (steadfastly not a book about me): I really love the feeling of gathering my own firewood for our cabin in the mountains, or looking at the ceiling and knowing that Cynthia and I built it for ourselves, or that when we turn on the electricity, that it comes from the tiny micro hydro turbine that we installed and maintain ourselves.

I think the best motivator for increasing our self reliance is the pleasure and satisfaction it brings.  But it’s also good to remember that not having someone else carry us up the stairs is better for  people born with less power than ourselves, and better for the planet in general.

1 comment:

  1. Andy, I am enjoying your book so much and I now have a highlighter sitting beside it as I go back a re read some of the passages. I find myself thinking differently about things since reading about these wonderful people. Here is one example: this weekend we started doing some exterior painting on our house. The railing on our back stairs and deck was first and instead of rushing through the process and not enjoying it, I found myself slowly painting each vertical post,the sun was warm on my back and the birds were singing and instead of this task being drudgery, I found it more like a meditation. I recently helped build my own new pottery studio and the experience was extremely rewarding and I have the satisfaction of knowing that I had a hand in building a place where I create my art. I did need help for some of the more physical labor but I learned so much helping the carpenter that I hired, and I agree we should do things for ourselves, we learn more and I think we have more empathy for those who have very hard jobs.