Zanny Merullo Steffgen
Privilege and the Mind
Standing under the shower today, I realized something. I noticed the drain had gotten blocked by a tangle of my hair, and my first thought was “I should buy a drain guard.” This may seem like a fairly normal idea for a young woman to have about her home, but it immediately struck me. Now that I live in America and have a well-paying job, I look to Amazon or the hardware store to fix my every little inconvenience. There was a time, when I lived in Cambodia and had two not-so-well-paying jobs, when little things like a hair-catching drain guard (or wipes specially formulated for glasses, or subscriptions to three different streaming sites, or five different products for my face) seemed superfluous. And then I realized, I was so happy then and so prone to anxiety now. How much of that has to do with my current level of privilege?
I want to start off by saying that “privilege” is not my favorite term. Yes, it adequately represents the advantages given to certain groups, but it has come to carry a connotation in the past years that makes me dissatisfied. Privilege is a loaded word, an accusatory one, when in reality I see so many different levels of privilege, we need a slew of new words just to encompass them. Many people are “privileged” or “fortunate” in their own way, whether it be because of their health, their economic status, their family, their access to education, their level of happiness, their spiritual peace. While there are definitely distinct and unfair levels of privilege around the world and in America especially (based on uncontrollable factors like race or neighborhood), I think it’s unfair to assume that people who are privileged in some ways have it easy in other ways. The truth is, life is hard, suffering is inevitable, and while the levels of privilege desperately need to become more even, I believe we will all be working towards “having it easy” for the rest of time.
When I moved to Cambodia, and tried my best to live as the locals did, fully immersed in authentic Cambodian culture while also engaging in a lively expat community, I discovered new facets of privilege. For many months I was confused by what I saw and understood, as I felt my perspective on poverty, wealth, charity, and materialism change. While I could write a 300-page book on all I experienced and came to understand during my time there, I will narrow it down to a few realizations for the purpose of this post: I realized that the concept of privilege is much more complicated and nuanced than I once had thought. I realized that materialism and wealth are not inextricably linked. I realized that charity and help are often misguided and not addressing true needs. I realized that poverty doesn’t necessarily bring you greater spiritual understanding, as it is impossible to lead a humble yet peaceful life with the external pressures and worries poverty creates. I realized that, while my life has not always been easy, I felt extremely grateful to be from a wealthy country and able to afford (by myself) a plane ticket to come and live in a developing country where the majority of people have no access to the many opportunities that had simply lain in my path since I was a child. Most importantly, I realized that although that fact made me more privileged, worldly, and perhaps gave me greater perspective on life, it did not guarantee me greater happiness or peace of mind or make me a superior human being in any way.
Although I attempted to live in Cambodia as a local–eating local food, learning the local language, working jobs alongside locals for the same pay–I also knew I was protected from the most difficult parts of Cambodian life. I lived in a fairly modern, Western house, I took medicine from home, and I knew that I had my parents to fall back on if things got too tough. (Another lesson I learned was not to feel badly about that, not to be so stubbornly attached to subjecting myself to the difficulties and realities of life that I wouldn’t use the resources available to me to stay healthy and safe.) Yes, I lost a lot of weight and was severely lacking in essential vitamins and minerals, I struggled with an intense sinus infection caused by a swim in a rice paddy and dealt with the effects of horrendous health care. I worked hard at two jobs I did not enjoy to ensure that I had enough money to buy myself three margaritas and a fish taco on my day off. I had three teaching outfits I wore in rotation throughout the week, I couldn’t afford things or travel, and I was subject to the frequent power outages, food poisoning, and uncomfortably hot weather that came with my new home country. But, I never wanted for anything, especially a drain guard. And I was the happiest I’ve ever been. My greatest pleasures were walking down the street and watching the traffic, biking through temple grounds in the jungle, or sitting on the floor at a local friend’s home, drinking beer and eating barbecued pork and garlic cloves wrapped in lettuce leaves.
A year and a half after leaving Cambodia, I now live in one of the wealthiest towns in America. I work at a fine dining restaurant, where everything from the uniforms to the linens and plates of food need to be pristine, and my hourly wage is a third of what I made every month as a waitress in Cambodia. I live in a small studio apartment that costs 17 times more a month than my room in a big house in Siem Reap. When I go out to eat with my husband, it is almost impossible to spend less than $70. While most of the working people in this town are down-to-earth and live for their time outside, materialism still reigns supreme. People have cars, bikes, stand up paddle boards, phones, computers, speakers, TVs, video game consoles, new clothes every season, and a lot of drugs (some of them legal). While I try to live simply and appreciate what I have as I did in Cambodia, I still fall into the trap of materialism. Although I stew in my contempt for this place and the entitlement of its people, I simultaneously subscribe to parts of their way of life. If I have the money and an inconvenience, why not use that money to fix it?
What I realized this morning, is that with so many little things and gadgets and fix-its, there are so many opportunities for things to go wrong. If I wake up and my phone isn’t fully charged, it sends a little spike of anxiety into my mind. If I don’t have half and half, only milk for my coffee, there’s another one. If one of my twelve work shirts is wrinkled, another source of worry. I guess the worst part is knowing that I fall prey to the pitfalls of privilege so easily. Have I lost my “go with the flow” ease? Or is it just the film of American consumerism covering my eyes, that feeling I tried so hard to escape since I was 16, that pairs so nicely with that never-ending pressure to succeed, to be perfect, to look perfect, to be social and hardworking and never break a rule or be too loud or too happy. That feeling that I can’t go out in the same clothing twice in one week, or wear the same dirty flip flops everywhere, or be silent on social media, or be anything other than busy?
The ability to have comes with great potential for disappointment. That is my takeaway from all of this. When I have more than I need, the possibility that I won’t have what I want can be really uncomfortable. Throughout the day, all those little disappointments add up, until I’m in a dark mood and can’t seem to figure out why. That to me is privilege, or its downside at least. So what am I doing about it?
Accepting some disappointments and discomforts without fixing them (the shriek of the gate when I open it, the taste of coffee without half and half–how spoiled am I if these are my greatest annoyances these days?)
Going through all of my belongings and donating the excess
Grounding myself in the real (the stars on my walk home from work, a hug from my husband after a long day, the steadiness of the mountains and trees that form a backdrop to my life here)
Trying to keep perspective, to viscerally remember my simpler lifestyle and strive towards that again
Focusing on gratitude for all the privileges, be it my financial security, the abundance of food available to me, all the love that fills my life, or even the problems and struggles and physical suffering that mark me with humility and understanding.