Living in a Cocoon

New Zealand, so small and unassuming and far away, has been brought to the world’s attention this past week. And my own memories of a brief stay there thirty-plus years ago have flooded my mind. One memory in particular stands out for me:

After shopping at a jewelry store in central Christchurch, my traveling companion and I asked for directions to the city’s famous Botanic Gardens. The shopkeeper not only told us where it was, he took us there.

He locked up his store – on a busy Saturday afternoon – piled us into his car, and drove us directly to the Botanic Gardens, about eight miles away, in weekend traffic. The impression he and others in Christchurch left with me was that in New Zealand people think nothing of going out of their way to be helpful and kind. The whole place seemed a bit like heaven to me.

A view inside the Christchurch Botanic Gardens (stock photo)

In reading this week the heart-wrenching news about the massacre of fifty Muslims in Christchurch by an Australian white supremacist, I also read the social commentary. One woman wrote words to this effect: What were those people doing in a church anyway? They don’t believe in Christ; they didn’t belong in Christ’s church! (No doubt, I thought, she’s an American fundamentalist “Christian,” far from heaven, who doesn’t read carefully.)

I was glad to see that another respondent set her straight so that I didn’t have to: Christchurch is the name of the city where these attacks occurred. These Muslim New Zealanders were worshipping quietly in their own mosques.

I’m often astounded by how unaware most Americans – not all, but most, I fear – are of the outside world and of other ways of being, living, and worshipping. It’s as if they’ve chosen to live in a cocoon, a familiar, protective shell for their chrysalis selves.

Another vivid memory surfaces:

Every semester, when I taught freshman English at UNM-Taos for ten years and we dipped briefly into African literature (a subject dear to my heart), I would hand out to the students a map of the continent of Africa with its fifty-four countries’ borders delineated but not labeled. Separately, I’d give them a list of the countries’ names in alphabetical order. I then asked them to label on the map as many of the countries as they could.

Only one or two of them – out of a class of twenty-or-so students — ever could get a few countries right. The rest couldn’t even pinpoint South Africa, the southernmost country, on the map. It was as if Africa, home to well over a billion of the world’s people, didn’t exist for them. And these were college students.

I understand, I really do, that life in the United States, especially now, is difficult for ordinary, hard working people. There are stacks of bills to pay, kids to raise and educate, elderly parents to care for in their declining years, stresses galore. It’s nose-to-the-grindstone-work for decades on end. So world travel is viewed as an out-of-reach luxury for most people. Even Peace Corps service in far-off countries is, for many, just a misty fantasy.

Nevertheless, I deeply believe that finding creative ways of stretching the world maps in our minds — such as by reading terrific travelogues or outstanding literature by foreign authors set in their homelands, and by watching travel documentaries and award-winning foreign films, and by seeking inexpensive overseas tours — is well worth pursuing. Because there’s a whole lot at stake.

Living in a cocoon is more than childishly irresponsible; it’s reckless. When people unlike oneself are looked at as “other,” the danger is that “otherness” can slip into “less than,” which can (as history proves) slide precipitously into “less than human.” This is when man’s inhumanity to man reveals its most inhumane self.

I count myself extremely fortunate to have lived nearly eight years of my life in various parts of Africa — most recently, from 1998 to 2001, in predominantly Muslim Mali, West Africa. As regular WOW readers will have read before, this experience was an especially life-changing one for me, and I’m glad to say the positive effects of it have yet to wear off.

Toward the end of my memoir about that experience, How to Make an African Quilt, when I was preparing to leave Mali, I made this observation, which I’ll share here to illustrate the point of this post:

“Hellos and goodbyes, greetings and farewells, are inordinately important in Malian culture. I’d observed the traditional greeting-exchanges countless times in my thirty months in Ségou – the ritualistic back-and-forth of queries as to the other’s (and that other person’s family’s) health and welfare.

“Early on, I’d remarked to [my Malian friend] Youssef how time-consuming these exchanges appeared to me to be. His response was, ‘Most Malians don’t own watches.’

“In time, though, I came to see the beauty in these exquisite, almost balletic greetings and the implied messages of respect and caring that they convey. Between the lines of questioning, they say: ‘You are more important than time to me.’

We Americans have a great deal to learn – or perhaps I should say, unlearn – as we get older, I believe, not the least of which is how large and rich the world is beyond our borders. I know we can learn many of these things from people in other lands, people as far away as Africa. Or New Zealand. Those people might even be Muslims who worship quietly every Friday in a mosque.