We walked up the path and away from the Rio Grande, our heads and hearts full after two hours exploring Boquillas, the Mexican village on the other side of the river across from Big Bend National Park.
“Mom,” our daughter started, “Everyone there was so nice.”
My husband and I looked at each other. The two hours we had spent out of the country had included a fun burro ride, delicious Mexican food (not just the Tex-Mex we were accustomed to), gorgeous views of the Rio Grande, and the reality of an impoverished economy highly dependent on tourism dollars from Big Bend visitors who planned far enough in advance to travel with their passports.
We had made the short trip to Mexico because we wanted to give the kids a chance to leave the country and experience new things without an extravagant (unaffordable) vacation abroad. But before we even crossed the river, we had a suspicion that the day trip would also open their eyes, just a little, to the realities of life just south of the United States border.
I finally responded. “Yes, they are people just like us and they were really nice. But they also needed us to buy some of their crafts. It’s a small village and there is nothing else for miles. They depend on American dollars for their economy.”
Jeff chimed in, “Especially this time of year. This is one of their busiest seasons because this is when a lot of people visit the national park. And what happened last year that might have had a negative impact on them?”
Our daughter waited a couple minutes for her little brother to finally figure it out and then gave an exasperated, “The shutdown.”
Our son’s eyes opened wide as he started to realize what the longest government shutdown in US history had meant to the people in the Big Bend region, including the people that he had just met over the border. For a year our kids had only thought about the government shutdown as something that had complicated our first attempt at a Christmas vacation in Big Bend. Now they were beginning to realize the wide reaching impact of a single government decision. They were getting a small insight into the bigger discussion Jeff and I had been having all week: as Americans, we have a troubling lack of understanding of social interdependence.
That was not the moment to continue the discussion about the many complexities at the US border; it was the moment to discuss the constant cause and effect of the decisions in our lives, both our own and the decisions of others that are out of our control.
Far too often we narrow our concerns to what impacts us right here, right now.
We don’t want to pay extra taxes, but then complain when there are potholes in the road that aren’t getting fixed by local municipalities. We don’t want to do the research and take the time and spend the money to fix our nation’s K-12 education system, but then lament that people don’t have a basic understanding of civics. We don’t want to discuss different ways to fix the skyrocketing costs of higher education, but we mock the college graduate who lives at home or with multiple roommates because they cannot afford both their student loans and basic rent in the cities where they can find jobs. We don’t want to change emissions standards or outlaw the use of plastic grocery bags because they infringe on our personal freedoms, but we list off the many respiratory problems we have and complain about the trash in our streets without taking the time to consider the role our stubbornness plays in the unnecessary continuation of those issues.
And our failure to see the big picture, the cause and effect of our decisions and actions, doesn’t just impact us, it impacts our neighbors, communities, and even the world.
While the effect may not affect us on a daily basis, we fail to accept the very real possibility that the butterfly effect of our single decision (or indecision) may have much bigger consequences for us down the road. I live in a city that has been arguing about the treatment and payment of fire department personnel since before we moved here. The city is more than willing to pay police officers more money because they see them as preventative. Unfortunately, they don’t see other emergency personnel, such as firefighters, the same way. The vast majority of people are hoping that they will never need to be in the presence of a member of the fire department, at least not in official capacity. They don’t consider that if they ever need a qualified and willing rescuer, that individual may not be available (or effectively trained) if citizens aren’t willing to provide for them in the first place.
I truly believe that most people–regardless of political affiliation, policy opinions, nationality, or religious belief–want to see a better world for them and their children. Unfortunately, often we are so focused on what we believe will make our world better we fail to take a step back and consider what impact that immediate desire will have on those outside of our social and economic circles. We are even less likely to consider the long-lasting and far-reaching impact our personal desires will have on the bigger picture of our interconnected global community. We believe that if it is good for us and our own than it must be equally good for others, without considering other’s circumstances, abilities, and social or cultural situation. The reality is that what we consider most helpful to us may not be most helpful to everyone (and may actually harm them).
We also fail to recognize that working for the benefit of others can eventually come back to benefit us in unexpected ways.
We don’t know when we might need the discoveries from the medical research that we supported years before. We don’t know if we will ever suffer a job loss and need financial assistance. We don’t know if we will need to see justice from a fair judicial system. We don’t know if we will be forced to locate to a place that we wish had a better educational system. We don’t know if we will be waiting at home for a loved one to return from a war zone, praying that our leadership sent them into danger for the right reasons.
We just don’t know.
Over Christmas break I read Jeremy Courtney’s book Love Anyway, his memoir of the years he and his wife Jessica have spent creating and building the Preemptive Love organization. As he recounted stepping back while his wife stepped into rebuilding post-ISIS Mosul, he remarked, “Jessica wasn’t drawing her dreams. She was drawing their dreams; dreams she’d listened to and learned over a decade of sitting in homes, making friends, and taking risks when everything around her said, ‘You should just leave! This is scary as hell!'” It took a long time of living in the Middle East, but through time and experience they learned that it was important to look at the bigger picture. If they had been thinking about what was best for them and their two small children, most people would argue that they should have returned to Texas long ago. But they chose a different path; they chose to learn from those they were living with and pursue global peace by doing what was best for others.
And for over a decade they have been working to build peace through relationships in a place where many people say it can’t be done.
As he wraps up the book, Courtney says, “Our maps to the other side of The Way Things Are and into The More Beautiful World–our models for faith, our definitions of kindness and justice, and the realities they aim to represent–are all intertwined. The models and the people who make them and the people who follow them, we change each other…There is no land beneath our feet, no way forward, no path through, and no people we will encounter that are not affected by the assumptions we bring to the journey. Nothing has come before us that didn’t affect the construction of the very maps we use to guide us through. In other words, everything is connected.”
It is understanding that connectedness that pushes us outside of ourselves, working to build a better world for the many, not just the few. When we embrace our interdependence, we realize that what is good for others can also be good for us as we work together for a future we can be proud of.
*Originally titled “Grasping the Importance of Social Interdependence”