When you come back to the first world from time in the third, it can be a jarring experience: a feeling of social disorientation mixed with haunting familiarity. They call it reverse culture shock.
It's that feeling you get when you realize you paid forty dollars to fill up your tank here, and a few cents to ride the bus there. It's that feeling you get when you realize you spent less than twenty bucks buying gifts there for everyone in your family, and you can't even buy a pair of jeans for that much here.
We think that's what it is, anyway. We think it's about money, socioeconomic levels, and technological development. We think we're shocked because we have stuff and they don't. Thus we either move towards a minimalist, materialism-rejecting mindset, or put money towards sending more stuff "over there" so they can have stuff too. We make ourselves feel ashamed for our affluence and possessions and try to help out the poorer man.
But if the economic and technological inequality is what culture shock were all about, don't you think we'd call it socioeconomic shock?
We try to make our disturbed feeling be about inequality because we're avoiding the thing truly shaking us to our core. The real culture shock isn't that they have less and we have more, but that the first world is no happier than the third.
When you come back from a community subsisting in abject poverty, you're shocked by all the stuff you have at home, sure--but also by the fact that it doesn't make you feel any better than you did spending a week in squalor. Affluent peoples aren't as happy as you'd expect after seeing what impoverished peoples have to put up with.
We have insurance and ERs and vitamins and immunization; yet we still complain about minor aches and pains. We have multiple grocery stores with everything from fresh fruit to fresh-baked sugar-loaded cookies, and nearly the half of farmers' profit comes from government subsidies rather than our pockets; yet we still complain about the price of ketchup, the flavor of this year's grapes, and the inability to find a quality brand of beer. We live in homes we didn't have to build ourselves with running water, electricity, and nice tile counters and wood floors; yet we complain about stopped toilets and mud tracked through by the dog. We have all this stuff, and we're not blissfully happy.
That's what makes us feel culture shock. We try to say that the surprise is the having, but really, the surprise is in our attitude towards having. The first world has solved many of the problems of the third, and yet we still have problems, still find things to complain about, still aren't satisfied.
When is enough enough? When can we stop striving and finally be at peace with ourselves? Is there no end to our striving? Is there no end to imperfection? Do problems just keep coming, unending, so that we'll never be able to make any progress towards a more happy humanity?
Even if impoverished people have all our stuff, they won't live problem-free, will they?
These questions are haunting. That's why we do our best to ignore them. It's depressing to think about what we can't do. We want to save the world, but we can't.* Maybe we never could.
That's not a call to stop giving and trying and working. Human dignity demands that we try. Justice demands that we keep striving to make the world a better place. We just have to be okay with the fact that the world will never be perfect.
We'd like to think that all our problems are external and therefore have external fixes. But the truth culture shock points to is that some of our problems are internal. You can deal with poverty and violence and sickness; but you can't deal with the malcontent in every human heart. No NGO can ever heal us of low self-esteem. No government program can ever eradicate selfishness.
What can you do about internal heart-problems like that without manipulating or enslaving people?
Simple: you can learn to be a better you. While that doesn't solve the problems inside the other seven billion of us, it does something to knock out dissatisfaction, selfishness, greed, anger, low self-esteem, manipulative behavior, impatience. You're the only person whose internal problems you have control over. It is the only thing you can do, and it is something that must happen: if you want the world to be better, you must be better.
So go, learn. Find the things and people that make you a better version of yourself. Make hard choices even when you gain nothing from them. The good things in our world are built on people who didn't gain, but gave. If you want a world like that, you have to be prepared to be one of them.
Happiness, ironically, involves doing things that are far from enjoyable at the time.
Word count: 835.
* Our desire to make the world a better place can quickly become washed in first world sentimentalism and turn into a savior complex. We are not here to save the third world. We're not here to give them what we have and then leave them to their own devices. That kind of help destroys cultures, though we like to arrogantly argue that any culture that gets ruined by technology isn't worth standing. (As if our own culture hasn't changed drastically since the industrial revolution--and we had decades and decades to slowly get used to technological progress.) We're here to share and learn, not give and ignore. We can take away many things from the third world that we wouldn't gain otherwise or find elsewhere.