Damocles was an excessively flattering courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a 4th Century BC tyrant of Syracuse, Italy. He exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand that fortune. In the evening a banquet was held, where Damocles very much enjoyed being waited upon like a king. Only at the end of the meal did he look up and notice a sharpened sword hanging by a single piece of horsehair directly above his head. Immediately, he lost all taste for the fine foods and beautiful boys and asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.
The Sword of Damocles is an often-used allusion to this tale, epitomizing the imminent and ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power. More generally, it is used to denote a precarious situation and sense of foreboding, especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance. It can also be seen as a lesson in the importance of understanding someone's experience.
Today, I hearken back to a conversation I had with Maty one day in Ouagadougou. We were at the airport, schlepping our luggage through customs. Well, we didn't get far before we were approached by a number of young men eager to help us. These helpful fellows took our bags to the waiting car and arranged them in the trunk, then stood by expectantly while Maty and I fished for money to tip them.
I was a little irritated, mostly because I was exhausted after 36 hours of air travel, but also because I had not asked for help and did not like feeling obligated to tip people for something I had not requested. "What's with these guys?" I asked Maty.
"They think we have a lot of money," Maty replied. "They know we are from America. They think life in America is easy." She said this in a tone that suggested that she knew better; that life in America is not easy.
Since then, that incident has come back to me from time to time. I thought, also, of similar experiences I had in India, where I was literally accosted by people providing me unsolicited services (opening doors, handing me towels, showing me places from which to take pictures) and then demanding tips.
|This snake charmer in New Delhi waved me over and then demanded 300 rupees for watching him|
It occurs to me that people in these impoverished nations have a different concept of America than the reality that Americans experience. In their eyes, even an average middle-class American is wealthy. We all have cars; we all have televisions; we have the money to travel around the world; we live in air-conditioned homes on paved streets.
And, of course, it is true that, by any material standard, we are rich. But there is another side to the story, isn't there? Maty told me at another point in our trip that life in Burkina Faso was easier than life in America. "In America, you have to work hard every day, with no one to help," she said.
In Burkina Faso, the extended family (including not only brothers and sisters, but aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, et alia) are intimately involved in each other's lives. For example, my sister-in-law, Mariatou, drops off her toddler daughter Awah at Grandma's house every day when she goes to work. My brother-in-law, Pape, is one of the few in the family to own a car and, therefore, is ascribed the duty of driving people, when necessary, to the hospital, to the airport, et cetera. The concept of saving money hasn't really taken root there, at least as far as I can tell. If one has money, one is obligated to spread it around to the other members of the family, with the full understanding and expectation that they will do the same when they come upon a windfall.
Here in America, the idea of an intimate extended family is becoming increasingly foreign. Households here are insular. Although we love our families every bit as much as Africans do their own, relying on them too much begins to seem an imposition or discourtesy. And the subject of money, even between close family members, is extremely touchy.
Our "self-reliance" has become a badge of dignity and honor. We are programmed to "stand on our own two feet," and "be responsible for ourselves." This mentality puts us in the precarious position of maintaining our lifestyle, our outward image, at the cost of our emotional and physical health.
And the Sword of Damocles hangs over us all. Every day we press on, fingers crossed, hoping that this will not be the day that we lose our job, that we are diagnosed with cancer, that the auto insurance doesn't come due.
The young men in the Ouagadougou airport can't see the sword that is hanging over our American heads. But Maty can. In spite of it all, she likes life in America. But there are things about life in Burkina that she misses. Don't get me wrong, either. I enjoy my creature comforts. But maybe someday, if enough people like Maty help us see, we can find a way to strike a balance, to reemphasize the importance of community and family, and to de-emphasize the plasma television, the BMW, the 2 karat diamond.
Until then, the sword dangles...