I think I first started being consciously grateful for things in my life in December of 2004. That's when I found out I got into Princeton. I danced a little jig and uttered a little prayer of thanks. And again when my brother's epilepsy did not come with brain damage, when my parents did not lose their jobs in recession-induced cutbacks, when the gun on campus turned out to be some kind of twisted joke. Thank you, God. Then I learned to be grateful for smaller things. A phone call from Mom, a skinny little brother to tickle and kiss you, a step-father who adopts you and never makes you feel like the odd one out.
Growing up my family was never "rich" by American standards, but we always had more than enough. I'm embarrassed that it took me so long to understand how truly little a person can live on. I remember yanking open my closet as an angsty preteen and taking an hour to scatter my entire wardrobe over the bed and floor before declaring that I had "nothing to wear" when the clothes hanging from the ceiling fan should have been evidence to the contrary.
And, although I never had the kind of mom who would coerce me into eating vegetables by reminding me of starving African children, I would sit transfixed in front of Save the Children infomercials afraid to change the channel for fear that it would mean I was a bad person. I would always swear to myself that if only we could afford it I would tell my mom to send money to those poor kids. If only I knew how much we could spare.
So now I sit around the dinner table with the family I live with and the parents encourage me to eat more and more.
"Put more, Nia! Put more," they say when I couldn't possibly swallow another grain of rice. "Inatosha," I tell them. (It is enough/sufficient.)
I stare at the mounds of rice and chicken piled in front of me and I feel my heart quicken w/gratitude and then grow heavy with guilt.
In each fit of induced gratitude for material things the arrogance of pity for those who do not have and the selfishness of "Thank God it's not me" are always implicit no matter how aware of them you are and no matter how hard you try to beat them back.
And while I do believe that there is something to be said for sympathizing with the plight of others, true empathy can only come from shared experience.
So I've decided to fast. And although I know that voluntary refusal of food does not come close to involuntary starvation, maybe sitting in quiet council with my stomach rumblings will help me complain a little less and share a little more. Maybe it will help me reach a truer level of gratitude, one that is not relative. Maybe it will help me reverse the 20 years of American media that taught me that to spend and to have and to be surrounded by luxury is to be happy. Maybe it will help me more closely differentiate between what I need and what I want.
I'm doing it because working with orphans and confusing lack of excess with genuine lack are incompatible. Because I'm still navigating the guilt of having so much more than I need. Because I curse the moments when I feel it is still not enough. Because it will bring me face to face with the things I am working to change.