With a tropical storm pummeling Washington, I drove a friend to work this afternoon, and on the way back home, I took New Hampshire Avenue through Dupont Circle. There was very little traffic on the roads, and while the sky above was gray and heavy with rain, the tree-lined streets were completely placid.
Slowly driving through this, one of the older parts of the city, I came to appreciate how small our world has become. Embassies of African and South Pacific nations line New Hampshire Avenue in Victorian rowhouses; at the same time, a CD of the Dhol Foundation’s combination of traditional Punjabi and Irish folk music played on the stereo.
Twenty years ago, I would have never know about music like that of Prem Joshua, Choying Drolma, Angelique Kidjo or Ubud Dua. Place names like Eritrea, Wat Oudong, Tibet and Hvalfjörður were completely foreign. Splitting my time as a child between a farm and the nearby small town, I had no idea about qi, shirshasana or Chenrezig. And yet, in 2008, all of these things, in one way or another, have made me who I am.
I used to lament the lack of opportunity I had in that small Southern town. I never heard of the Peace Corps or archeology or applied linguistics. The world of Indiana Jones was one of complete fantasy; Washington, D.C. seemed light years away from the fields of my grandparents’ farm, and the classrooms of my middle and high school were a place where I struggled to understand myself, not the world around me.
But today, with a passport full of immigration stamps and visas – and a mind full of ideas planted by reading, studying, traveling, meeting people and expanding my horizons – I have come to appreciate the haven offered by the world’s former lack of connectedness. How many times have I wanted to pick up and move to somewhere like the Caribbean or Southeast Asia – or even back to a small town – in search of a simpler life? There are days when the caves of the Himalayan hermit monks sound incredibly appealing, especially in a world where an act of oppression, violence or hate can reach billions of people in the time it takes a byte of data to fly across the Internet.
I am hardly alone in longing for a slower pace, but humanity’s story is best told against a backdrop of planetary scale. We are, I believe, curious by nature, and most of us will seek to learn more about the world when given an opportunity. I never had the chance to see anything beyond a worn set of encyclopedias that my dad brought home when he worked as a traveling salesman for World Book until I was in my mid-20s; since then, I have felt a subconscious drive to try and catch up, formally studying linguistics and world religions in an effort to be the best-possible global citizen.
Global citizenry comes with a steep price: with the irrelevancy of world borders and the “merging” of societies resulting from the West’s broadcast of its finest cultural wares to the rest of the planet, there is no longer such a thing as an untouched culture, which is an inevitable and unfortunate fact of life in the 21st century.
But are we better off? China is now the world’s second most-obese nation, thanks in large part to the proliferation of Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast-food restaurants in the farthest rural areas of that nation; languages are becoming extinct as the shift to an urban-focused life leaves millennia-old, previously isolated communities of people in ruins. And the global economy, built upon the notion of an ever-expanding GDP that is quickly outpacing the planet’s and mankind’s ability to keep up, is pushing us to a point where our Earth will be uninhabitable. Geez, who wouldn’t long for the simple life in a small town or isolated village?
The flip side of all of this is that we have an opportunity to reach new heights as a collective humanity. If half the propaganda put out by the Chinese during the Olympics were true – if ‘One World One Dream’ could be a reality in some way – we could work together to solve crises like HIV/AIDS, global warming and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Working in concert, we could reach the pinnacle of our shared human potential.
So: small world, big problems or big world, small problems, it’s all a wash. We are where we are today, and the same holds true for me. I’m not sure where the solutions lie, or if there even are any, given the way things have worked over these last 20 years.
The only thing I can say for sure is that we are sitting on the opportunity of a lifetime – of thousands of lifetimes – to create a better world. Though when I stop to really think about it, I have that opportunity each morning I wake up and start my day. If enough of us seize that very real individual opportunity – in small towns and big cities, on small islands and across the seven continents – then maybe we can reach a tipping point. Maybe, just maybe.