ode to the olde: part one

“That dress is so 2012.”

“You have a landline phone??”

“Why isn’t there a McDonald’s on this corner?!”

 For the past 16 months in South Africa, and arguably much longer, I’ve been doing some quiet thinking about a few of our innumerable thought processes – as individuals, as a group, simply as people. We have this incredible ability to create expectations, allow disappointments, and stoke a seemingly insatiable craving for more, newer, shinier, better. And I completely understand, because I’m a contributing link in that chain. In 8th grade, I was unhappy when I couldn’t find my size jeans at the [insert cool brand name] store and had to continue wearing last year’s style. In college I got frustrated on road trips when my GPS died and I had to pull out the old-fashioned, dusty map. Even here in the village: at lunchtime my taste buds shrivel up if I receive the never-popular samp and beans versus the expected soup and uphuthu.

Why? Why do we do this?

I believe the way we choose to think is usually in our control… but sometimes it may not be. Perhaps it’s animalistic to become accustomed to certain things – and to be displeased when the normal standard isn’t met. I’ve watched a pampered cat strut away from a dish of Fancy Feast because it wanted the usual warmed cuts of fish more than it wanted a full belly. I’ve been appalled at a spry dog that wouldn’t jump onto a bed anymore without the presence of its ridiculous tiny set of stairs. But the most consistent offender I’ve noted, of course, is that of humans – babies and adults alike – as we tire of new gadgets almost as quickly as they come out, limit our happiness within shackles of expectation, and permit ourselves to sink into disappointment after “sub-par” experiences.

For example, when I introduce a new game in class, my learners will fawn over it for a while before they get bored and want something new (Hangman just doesn’t hold the same sparkle as it did a year ago). I volunteered in Malawi in 2007 and I remember being amazed at how enraptured a bunch of teenagers were during a three-hour lecture – but I’m not sure they’d be so mesmerized if they’d had to abandon their Nintendos first. Isn’t that the same for us adults as well? Other than vintage-value reasons, who wants to operate a VHS versus a Blu-ray DVD; an 8-track versus an iPod; a typewriter versus a Word document?

While I do believe you can choose how you perceive things, I don’t believe it’s easy. It’s tough sometimes because, biological speaking, we subconsciously conform to a group, follow a herd, take pride in being part of a pride. It makes sense; it’s tricky being the outlier of a pack. We’re trained to think we want more or recent or expensive – because that’s what the masses want and that’s what we are conditioned to believe is best. Eventually, this turns into us becoming accustomed to standards and disappointed with anything short of them. We’ve become so used to continuously climbing the ladders of technology and merchandise and services rendered that hanging out on a plateau feels like sliding backwards. It may not seem possible or, perhaps what we fear most, acceptable but you can choose to be, think, interpret, and act differently from the homogenous drone that has become the safe, social norm. (I feel my girls’ school education shining through right about now.)

Over here I hope to continue learning – essentially training myself – to be content, if not ecstatic, with what I have. Hell, that’s what life’s about, isn’t it?

A creative optimist after my own heart: finish this post on the lighter side

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