I’ve had a terrible day. It’s Friday evening after work. I’ve just eaten dinner. I’m sitting in a restaurant feeling frustrated and anger — partly at myself, partly at others.
I’m unhappy about multiple things. I’m lonely. I want to quit my job. I miss someone. I feel alienated from the people around me. I find myself thinking that life hasn’t been fair to me. (I could tell you why. I have plenty of reasons.)
And then I randomly saw this photograph.
Gautam Basu took this photo of an Indian mother and two of her children. The mother is dressing a daughter while a smaller child clings to her. The pipe in which they’re standing is their home.
Basu is a talented amateur photographer who was named Environmental Photographer of the Year in 2011 by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. This photo was one of the pictures for which he was honored as he captured the real lives of the poor in India.
This family lives in an Indian area called the Pipe Slum. The sections of pipe are pieces that were abandoned after a local city finished a water project. The rest of the slum is shanties built around the pipes. The sections of pipe were waste debris, but they’re everything for the people who live there.
I wasn’t looking for this photo. Even as I see it now, I’d rather not see it. I would rather wallow in my own hurt and anger and discontent.
But as the photo forces me to compare myself to these people, I find it hard to complain.
To see how these people live doesn’t change the things that are making me whine tonight. It doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t give me the things I crave most. It doesn’t fix the problems of someone I love. It doesn’t give me a path to the productive and creative future I need.
But it does remind me how privileged I am.
I just ate a fine meal and I could have eaten pretty much anything I chose. I will leave here and go to a home that isn’t as fine as I’d like it to be, but it’s safe and secure. It has a roof that keeps me dry. I have air conditioning in the summer and sufficient heat in the winter. I have a fine bed on which to sleep. I have plenty of nice clothes. I have a dependable and comfortable car to get me to the places I need to do.
I worked today at a job that gives me enough income to provide for a middle-class life. I’m employed in an air-conditioned office at work which isn’t physically taxing. I have to privilege of working with people who treat me well and who generally work well together.
I was privileged enough to grow up in a family and a culture where education was expected and provided without question. I am trained in how to act in my society in ways that cause people to treat me with respect.
My life is terrible — inside my worst fears and hurts — but it is the height of luxury by the standards of billions of people around this globe — including the mother and children in this photo.
The fact that some people have things worse than I do doesn’t change anything for me. I still hurt about the same things. I still fear the same things. I still crave the same things.
But how can I whine and feel sorry for myself when I have so much? More importantly, I have the resources and possibilities to change my life. Over time, I can fix much of what’s wrong for me. If I lived in an open concrete pipe in a slum, I might not know where my next meal would come from, much less have the realistic possibility of finding the future love and security which I care so much about.
I don’t feel guilty for having a better life than billions of people do. I would love to have a way to help them pull themselves out of extreme poverty, but I don’t apologize for the middle class American life to which I’ve been born.
But I am vividly aware that I have privileges that many billions of people will never have. Knowing that doesn’t change anything for me, but it reminds me how very fortunate I am to have a future where I can write my own story and change my own life — while I live in absolute luxury by the standards of the world and the standards of human history.
I have to remember not to feel sorry for myself. I have to remember to take advantage of the awesome privileges I’ve been given — and I have to take advantage of them in order to create the love and life and future of my dreams.
I’m thankful to an Indian photographer and an impoverished Indian family for reminding me of that.