As I arrived in New York the other day, I was thrown in my face the abundance of the city. With eating for example, it was stunning to see how much abundance of healthy food products you can find at almost every corner of the city. Fresh pressed juices, organic produce, whole grain foods, hummus, tofu, etcetera.. It was impressive to have so much delicious healthy abundance available. You see, usually when I travel as a healthy vegan, I’m used to hunt for the right foods. I often have to prepare in advance to make sure I don’t miss any healthy fruits, vegetables and so on. And normally with a little bit of patience I find what I need. But New York literally threw it all in my face. I didn’t need to shop in advance, or to plan anything for that matter, for wherever I turned I found all I needed, and that’s great.
However, there is a shadow side to this abundance. Indeed not only you can find abundant healthy foods everywhere, but you can find just as many, in fact many more unhealthy foods and junk foods. Indeed a lot of this junk is disguised as healthy foods, for instance energy bars and granolas. They look so tempting, and on my first night I made the mistake of eating a few of those, thinking they only contained wholesome ingredients. They did, but one of them was sugar, and too much of it. So I got a sugar high - and at this point I can feel its detrimental effects quite easily, because I’m used to eating mostly non processed foods. Not only that, as a vegan in NYC you can find all sorts of delicious vegan options. For instance there are entire vegan diners, serving all the range of burgers, pies, and delicious American typical foods. You’d assume that because they’re vegan they are not so unhealthy. But my second mistake was to eat at one of those diners, and of course the enormous portions of the burgers, cheesecake and fries was detrimental for my health as well. Now think of the standard, non consciously eating, non healthy person. They can easily reach out for any variety of junk food, and an incredible range of processed and sugary foods, at no effort. As you look around you see this contrast of light and shadow of abundance for everything, not just with food. Media, entertainment, clothes, shoes, bars, cafe’s, pharmaceuticals, office supplies, you name it. And of course plastic containers and packaging that all go to produce trash. There is nothing you can’t find here. It is all shovelled in your face for your convenience. So you buy, buy and buy. Even the air conditioning is used abundantly, to the extent that as I kept going from one freezing subway car to the outdoor heat, to the next freezing indoor space, matched with the unhealthy foods and the fact that I had difficulty sleeping in the filthy room full of mosquitoes I stayed in - my immune system weakened and I started to get a cold.
As I observed and talked to the people around me I noticed something else. Most of the people riding the subway cars with me were immigrant workers commuting to the city, as I stayed in Queens, an immigrant part of the city. The energy you could see in them is an energy of bending down. The kind of feeling you get from a people that is used to tolerating the intolerable, and accepting the unacceptable, of saying 'yes' when they mean 'no'. I wondered if all this excess abundance is what allows people to be distracted from this feeling and to keep accepting. Pietro, a second generation immigrant from Italy, who told me about his kids, was worried about his daughter. She just started college and joined a sorority, where they ask her to do a bunch of things on the line between challenging and degrading, as part of the initiation process. I wondered why someone would go through that. He explained that as you go to a new town and you have no friends that is the only option you have to make new friends and be accepted in the group sometime. His son was luckier: people liked him right away so he didn’t need to make an effort to make friends. I wondered if this is a common reality for people who make it to the U.S. in general, especially immigrants. Given the often difficult and severe immigration laws, and the not so uncommon bullying of port authorities at immigration, not to mention the discrimination, do they feel they need to bend down and accept to be treated less then, in order to fit in?
Finally I had my last slap in the face of this reality. The girls I was staying with were Turkish students, immigrated recently. We stayed in a filthy and crappy old apartment where apparently the walls and floors are paper thin. I often asked them if I was bothering them in various circumstances, and when their sleeping hours were to refrain from disturbing them. But they never complained, the whole time they seemed very friendly and easy going and accepting and replied there was no problem. Only when I left the place and read my Airbnb review, I found they wrote nasty stuff about me. That was the first bad Airbnb review I got in all my years of traveling. They complained about me making noise while they were sleeping, etcetera. And it became undeniable to me, how beneath this mask of tolerance there is in fact so much resentment in people. Indeed, if one is not careful, one might confuse New York for a very tolerant and accepting city. Everyone seems to be accepted here. No matter if they're poor or rich, young or old, ugly or beautiful, no matter the religion, the sexual orientation, the skin color. No matter what your interest are. It welcomes the lost, the unwanted, the outsiders. Everyone can find a place here. If you want to see the world condensed in a city go to Queens. You will find here people who have gone through incredible journeys, who have taken great risks to get here. And yet, all this tolerance comes at a great cost.
As I continued my journey towards the west, this contrast between abundance and its shadow side, consumerism, was ever more evident. On the plane, just as in many places, I watched people consume junk foods along with media entertainment for the entire trip: possibly a completely numbing experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising these people, in fact I’ve done in this in the past too, that’s how I know how numbing it is. As I flew over miles and miles of cultivated land I couldn’t help but ponder that only a few centuries ago these lands were wild and filled with forests and native villages. It took a bunch of Europeans only a few hundred years to mass murder generations of native people, and to destroy all these lands. It seems that the prerogative of America - or rather of the Europeans that came here, is consumption, for its own sake. To compensate for some internal void. I can imagine that a lot of the Europeans that colonized America were people escaping from their issues at home, with the illusion that avoiding them would make them disappear, and as they landed here, they found an infinite vastity of land and resources: what better opportunity to fill those voids they've been trying so desperately to escape. And so they killed, took over and destroyed. And they still do. As I watched the acres of cultivated land below me, I couldn't help but notice that they are probably mostly used for cattle feed. What an incredible waste. Consuming land and food just to consume animals, a completely unnecessary practice that uses incredible amounts of resources and produces enormous amounts of pollution. Are we that surprised that Americans - and the rest of the world following their lead - are behaving as though we have several planets at our disposal? That our life style is dangerously unsustainable, and is growing well beyond the capability of our planet? Consuming for the sake of consuming, destroying land and resources as though we had an infinite amount at our disposal, in order to fill our internal voids. I must come to the conclusion that the void we are trying to fill with over-consumption is a lack in abundance, for the connection between abundance and this shadow seems direct. When we live in an internal space of lack we create over-consumption to compensate it.
I finally landed in Arizona, where this abundance/consumerism contrast takes on a different form. Here I see a lot of it in the utilisation of land. People live in luxurious or at least pretty villas surrounded by impeccable looking yards, pools, parks and other private facilities. They all posses enormous cars with which they move everywhere. You don’t see too many people walking around: in order to do anything you get in your car and get into one of the several shopping centers covering the area. There are three such centres just in my neighbourhood, with three equally humongous supermarkets, where again you can find an incredibly abundance of food, and all other items you could possibly imagine. I got lost when I went shopping for food because I could not decide what to buy. Which of the 23 alternatives of hummus? Which of the 34 varieties of soy milk? I just requires time and energy to make up your mind, and you always end up buying too much.
As I walked around the perfect houses with their perfect yards I wondered what the deal was here. Everything looked so perfect from the outside. Perfect neighbourhoods, perfect cars, perfect stores, perfect roads. It wasn’t until I walked across a public park, and saw all the various signs ( don’t litter or you’ll be persecuted, dogs must be curbed at all times, etc ) that it occurred to me. I was reminded of a few people I know in my life who have equally perfect looking surroundings. These people that I know - who always left me with a great mystery of weather they secretly wake up in the middle of the night just to keep their house so clean and tidy - also happen to be very physically and emotionally ill people. It reminded me that creating a perfect environment around them gives them the illusion of control. Because they are scared of their surroundings, and in particular they are scared of being hurt by people, they illude themselves that by controlling them they can control the level at which they get hurt. And so they lock themselves in beautiful and impeccable homes, where they repeat to themselves how dangerous and hostile the world outside is. It reminded me that perfectionism is a form of illusion of control. This control started lurking at the surface as I walked around and noticed all the signs, all the fences, all the lack of chaos. There is nothing scarier than chaos for such people. They believe chaos gives others permission to hurt them.