A recent trip to Bangalore puts life’s hardships into perspective

SOMEWHERE OVER IRAQ – February 7, 2011 – I’m enroute back to Seattle from India, and my head is spinning from what I’ve seen. And it’s put many aspects of my life into a better perspective.

I was raised in typical Midwestern suburbia in the 1960s. We had a three bedroom home in a windy-street subdivision, two cars in the driveway, a speedboat, color TV, and plenty to eat. Life consisted of school, piano lessons, shooting BB guns and riding bikes.

When my parents divorced in the early 70s, our income dropped significantly, to well below the national poverty line. Despite this, we adjusted. My mom worked her tail off to keep food on the table, but as a hairdresser with three kids, a mortgage, and a lack of reliable child support, that got really rough. There were months when we had nothing but powdered milk, powdered eggs, day-old bread and chicken. So much chicken. Chicken in every imaginable variation.

After this period, I couldn’t eat chicken for ten years. Seriously.

What kind of person would maim a child – for money?

On my recent India trip, I saw many things: children with missing limbs, maimed to engender more sympathy as they begged for rupees. A beautiful little girl, perhaps 4 or 5 years old, nearly struck by our auto-rickshaw as she scurried between moving vehicles begging for money. I was freaking out – our driver was just annoyed as he nearly hit her.

Seeing that will put your supposedly difficult American life into a completely different perspective.

The conference I spoke at was to benefit the Akshaya Patra Foundation, an NGO feeding more than 1.3 million children every single day. Part of our tour was a visit to an Urdu school as we delivered a hot lunch to the children.

What struck me as I stood there videotaping these kids was their absolute happiness, positivity and gratitude. They weren’t belabored with ego issues (“I can’t believe I’m having to accept a handout”) or negativity (“who are these strangers?”) or fear. They were just very happy and very grateful for a tasty lunch.

I was so moved by the whole visit – mostly the fact that I had previously thought my childhood had been difficult – that I started tearing up and had to turn away so as not to freak out the kids. It made me realize how rich my childhood had been; that while I thought months of powdered food was bad,  I lived like a prince compared to the begging street urchins or the legless boy sitting on the sidewalk of the Brigade Road shopping district.

It made me realize that life’s happiness was largely in expectations and attitude.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation is so efficient, so well organized, that they can take US$11 and turn it into school lunches for an entire year for one child. ELEVEN DOLLARS. As I sat in the outside bar at the Leela Palace, sipping a martini, I realized that my $11 drink could have fed a child for a year – effectively taking that child off the streets and putting them into school. ONE DRINK.

All I want to do right now is to help these kids. All of them. The Foundation is an amazing team doing amazing work. Something far more meaningful than hawking products for a living.

“Sucks to be you”

In the US, we often have this Darwinian/Horatio Alger type of mentality, that if you’re in dire straits, “oh well, sucks to be you.”  “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, loser!” We admire and reward the wealthy, as if they picked some magical lock and were rewarded with money and stuff. We ignore or avoid the poor, partially because the amount of need is overwhelming, partially out of selfishness. “If I gave money to everyone, I’d be broke!” “Go find a mission somewhere” (as if we’d ever been to a mission). Some people treat the poor like they have leprosy and it might rub off on them. So we look away from the meth addict begging at the front door to the local Safeway, we give a wide berth to the guy in a sleeping bag on the hard concrete, or we look down our noses at the smelly homeless guy who walks into McDonald’s to order, hoping someone will make up the difference of what he cannot afford.

I’ve found myself thinking those same thoughts too. But why is it that we are so quick to judge and disdain? Have we absolutely no empathy for our neighbors who have fallen so far? And how are these kids in India so opposite to that? So happy? So positive?

Some will ask why I’d want to help children on the other side of the planet instead of “here at home.” This isn’t some nationalistic thing. This is about helping children who need it the most. We’re all human beings (well, maybe not the thugs who are maiming these street kids for profit).

Scarcity versus Abundance

And I’d challenge you that that’s Scarcity Mentality talking: that if we give, then we have less for ourselves. A Darwinian social focus is based on fear of losing. We – the wealthiest society on the planet – afraid of losing!  WTF.

This trip has changed my life. For a moment – I was that brown-eyed little boy in elementary school. For a moment, I was back in 1971, picking at chicken bones and gagging on my powdered skim milk before riding my bike to the day-old bread store. All I could think of was how much I wanted to help every single one of those kids. That was more important than any other issue I might face. Or what I might lose.

Nothing I’ve ever been through compares to the lives of these street kids. Really, my life has been full of unbelievable abundance. When confronted by challenges, I can listen to the cultural zeitgeist and be negative or cynical – or I can adjust my expectations and attitude and keep things in perspective.

How about you? Scarcity – or abundance?

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