I was reminded yet again last month how second and third world countries are so often wealthy in what truly matters. I had just spent almost two weeks without any technology in Mongolia, living in close quarters each day with my travel companions and interacting face to face frequently with various nomadic tribes. This kind of intimate, personal interaction is really what the human spirit is made for. To substitute this with a machine, which is what we resort to with greater scope and frequency each passing year in the U.S., is but a pale, pale imitation. We all know this intellectually, but there is nothing like driving home a truth through experience. It made coming back to the United States a bit of a shock, as my eyes had been opened to see abject poverty in new ways...poverty that has nothing to do with lack of food or clothes, but everything to do with the human soul.
One evening I was walking toward the downtown shopping area of Santa Monica and passed a guy sitting on the curb, his shoulders bent, starting intently into his phone. An idea for a photo series immediately popped into my head...shots of people totally engrossed in devices, oblivious to other real humans passing them by, juxtaposed with images of people starving for literal food. In my mind, the poverty is exactly the same, it's just that one form occupies the human body and the other occupies the spirit. The needs to be addressed might be different, but the experience of lack is the same. It's just that we can't see our own poverty very well when we live in the midst of it. We get used to it and not only accept the status quo, but we start to think that nothing is wrong with it.
Perhaps this sounds extreme, but then again, it takes leaving your environment completely to really have any chance of seeing it with any greater clarity and objectivity. In my mind, the people I encountered in Mongolia were wealthy in family, in relationships, in connection, in peace and contentment in ways that I rarely witness here. This is why I am such a proponent of travel - it never fails to ruin you for the better. Once your thinking has been shifted, it can't be unshifted. Memories of this experience will remain with me for a lifetime.