What Is Reality?

04/15/2013 09:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013

Reality Bites.

Bad movie -- great line... the notion that every once in a while events, circumstances, occurrences, the randomness of life gets in our way -- gunks up the works -- screws us up -- flushes our plans down the toilet and otherwise creates a F@#k Fest.

Here is the thing -- what is reality?

Seriously.

I'm not trying to be esoteric, metaphysical, philosophical or transcendental, honestly.

But I have come to see that my view of reality is skewed -- distorted and one-sided -- in short, biased by where I live, what I have experienced and what I believe and/or have been taught is the perfect outcome of life as a result of a perfect and rational process (another one-sided view).

And so even the phrase "reality bites" has taken on new meaning for me -- what bites is that there are so many different realities, so many different outcomes, so many different paths, and oftentimes we look at them and want to impose our view, our reality... because the others seem so wrong... so bad -- but frankly, to those living them they might in fact be just the thing.

Let me get specific.

My liberal, left-leaning, champagne socialist politics and social outlook have a distinct "save the world" hue and needless to say it's save the world in my distinct image of how the world should be saved.

All good until..."Reality bites."

Last week I had the amazing privilege of visiting Senegal with UNICEF. Wisely, they called it a "Field Visit"... and not a mission. I joined a small group of committed UNICEF board members and staffers and we spent four days looking, listening, experiencing and mostly learning.

I won't bore you with the history of the country -- but it is worth reading up on -- particularly as Dakar was a center for the slave trade that so infected the Americas for some 300+ years, and seeing an infamous "Door of No Return" at a still-standing slave trader's home made it very up close and uncomfortable for me.

I will share this though -- as this is where my story starts -- poverty is widespread, with 33.5 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 a day. Children are the most affected -- it's a country with a booming population -- and a UNICEF study showed that three out of five children in rural areas and in families where there is little education, have no access to essential services -- and we are talking housing, medicine, education -- and nutrition.

Sadly, child abuse, begging, rape and the general lack of basic services are a "reality" in Senegal -- but on the other hand, a host of programs have been fielded to deal with these issues and more -- and the good news is that there is progress.

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A few stories where my "reality" was challenged:

We visited a school -- a few in fact.

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They were truly inspirational.

Kids learning, teachers teaching, hopes and dreams being created with every possibility of fulfillment.

Dedication from parents, teachers and administrators -- in fact, everything you and I would want for our own children.

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Confession: At first I assumed this was bad -- imagine my kids here? -- never. Sand-blown playing fields, lack of supplies, torn posters warning against child molestation or disease or begging.

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Then I looked at the kids' notebooks, the slates they were working on. Meticulous notes, beautiful handwriting, the same subjects that kids their age were learning everywhere. Happy faces. Animated. Full of life.

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This is in fact their "reality" and it doesn't bite -- not in the way I was thinking. Of course it could be better and believe me, the kids, their parents and all are working to make it so.

In fact, the student government in one of the schools is run by an elected president (a second grader -- he will run the country one day), who is assisted by a prime minister and a full cabinet of specifically appointed ministers, including one for sanitation and one for culture.

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We visited a village where we were given the local rural version of a PowerPoint presentation detailing the 10-year-plan the village has for its future, including building an infirmary and a high school. Dreams, and a plan to fulfill them.

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On the very downside, we saw a Dara -- an Islamic Koranic school run by a marabout, where 60+ children lived and learned in one small room -- in filth and stench -- begging for their meals and the money that goes to the marabout, and where social service agencies have to create devil's deals in order to provide the kids with medical or other attention. And while this was the low end of the Dara system, the begging is widespread.

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We saw hospitals where two doctors specializing in malnutrition care for a population of hundreds of thousands, and we saw child protection facilities run by retired volunteers who are near unto saints.

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And finally, we visited a program run by the NBA and sponsored in part by Nike, where kids get to accelerate their education and also play sports in order to develop the leadership skills so necessary for the future of Senegal.

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Gorgui Dieng, a member of the winning Louisville Kentucky NCAA team in the US, came out of this program.

So... "reality"? You judge. The "reality" that bit me was that I wasn't there to change their reality -- on the contrary -- I needed to understand how I could take mine and help them make theirs better as they wanted it and not replace it.

And to that end... listen:

"Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality." Jules de Gaultier

We saw the imagination, we saw the dreams, we saw the determination -- they are fighting and will win -- I have no doubt. And hopefully we will too.

What do you think?