Tuesday, January 28, 2014

vanilla world

My life has been filled with experiences that would cause many people to faint from the shock of what they were seeing. My worldview is painted by interaction with alcoholics, drug addicts, homeless people, mentally ill people, immigrants, sexual deviants, criminals of every description and people who have secret lives. To say that I have been changed by exposure to the wide variety of people and environments is an understatement.

In 1991, I started interviewing people who lived on the margins of society. At the beginning, I asked all the wrong questions. My questions were driven by my own personal sense of horror that I, too, might be vulnerable enough to end up on the streets or drawn into behavior that was "bad". My fear guaranteed that people would hold their darkest secrets away from me and give me just a glimpse into their world. At the end of a day of interviewing, I would return to the safety of my vanilla world and collapse into my comfy chair, secure behind my deadbolts and my location in a "safe" neighborhood.

Over the years, I lost some of my horror, though I maintained a healthy dose of fear - just enough to ensure that I made smart decisions when it came to my own personal safety. The obvious criminals are easy to avoid. It's the sociopaths that are hard to spot. (They look and act so normal!) Instead of asking the question, "how did you end up here?", which was a question motivated by my own fear, I learned to ask, "what is your fondest dream?" And people tell me their stories and secrets. Occasionally, someone shares something with me that shocks them more than it does me. Getting a glimpse into the deepest recesses of a person is to be altered forever. You can't touch someone - soul to soul - and walk away the same person you were before it happened. So, I bear the imprint of hundreds of people. And I am richer for it.

But I write this not to discuss the more shocking bits of my years of interviews. Instead, I share my absolute dismay that there are so many people who are clueless about the wider world. They live their entire lives in vanilla world, with their only exposure to darkness being occasional glimpses on national news broadcasts or magazine articles. But I've even watched them turn away from those. "I don't want to see that." Instead, they turn their attention back to their own vanilla world, where things are boring and safe. I watch them in amazement, realizing that unless they have something very shocking happen in their lives, that they will die without ever seeing color. Their lives are beige and always will be.

The most shocking aspect of vanilla world is the conviction its residents have that every person is the master of his or her own fate. They truly believe that anyone experiencing difficulty can rise above it if only they strengthen their determination. They, mostly born into comfort, refuse to consider that they may be a direct cause of the discomfort of many others. And if they can mix religion into the recipe, they can convince themselves that God means for them to live a life apart from the disturbing realities of life outside vanilla world.

Lest anyone think I'm discussing only rich white people, let me state for the record that I see people of all races, religions and socio-economic levels living in vanilla world. I use the word 'living', but I really mean 'existing'. Because I honestly now believe that unless you have some color - some experiences that shock you and pull you out of your vanilla world - you aren't living.

Allowing color in doesn't mean you have to go to the extremes that I have gone. No. In fact, you can add color simply by admitting that you live in vanilla world. Do you? If you're not sure, then you probably do.

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