THE BLOG

Rejecting Willful Ignorance

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last night I pulled a down comforter over me in a five-star Dubai hotel as I sank luxuriously into the 1000 thread sheets and feather-soft mattress. We arrived in Dubai for a one night stopover en route to Paris from Malawi.

As I lay in that extreme comfort I thought of the mother I had met in a rural Malawi village who was likely pulling a blanket upon herself as she fell asleep. But her blanket and bed were in stark contrast to the lap of luxury of our hotel. This mother of five lived in a small village on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi one of the poorest countries in the world. Her home was a small mud hut consisting of a single large room with a straw mat upon which her five children slept while she and her husband shared a mat in an adjacent room (next to the goats). They washed and dried daily their two blankets (one for each room), tattered and worn to keep the cool of night at bay. The only furniture was a single pot of water kept in the corner for drinking.

My mind wandered to the images of others going to bed and the circumstances that change our experiences in that simple endeavor. In the Dubai paper I read of a young Manila women rescued from a sex-slavery operation working in Dubai. The authorities had saved 9 victims from the abuses perpetuated on young females in this affluent city. I thought of these rescued females in the 'safe-house' awaiting return to their homeland, fearful but at least safely going to bed.

The simple and daily act of going to bed was a reminder of the extremes of inequality in the world and as we sleep in our comfort, the horrors of poverty and gender inequality affecting half of the world's population conveniently ignored.

It is hard to imagine that I may forget the pain and suffering I saw on this trip when I return to the comforts of my Los Angeles lifestyle. But the holidays, Christmas, and day to day activities back in LA will likely make the vividness of the experience begin to fade into the background. It is easy to 'forget' the suffering of others on the other side of the world as I deal with the little burdens of my own life. But herein lies what James Carse called 'willful ignorance,' perhaps the worst sort of ignorance -- one that stems from a conscious ignoring of problems too difficult to solve or too difficult to handle.

I am committed to staying 'awake' to not succumb to willful ignorance again. I see how easy it is to do, lulled into ignorance by the cushion of pleasure. But from the comforts of luxury, we in the West have a capacity to awaken ourselves and make global change. I think of the vast majority of Americans now awash in the virus of affluency, an 'affluenza' of sorts, a toxicity of wealth wherein obesity, diabetes, and chronic illnesses abound. It is a country that has somewhat lost its ability to connect within, to connect to the planet, to connect with one another. But we each have the capacity to 'wake up' -- to jog ourselves out of slumber, and make conscious choices to improve the quality of our own lives and that of others. We can turn it around if we choose to reject such 'willful ignorance'.

In our rejection of willful ignorance, we need look for ways to give back to those less fortunate than us and to make changes in our own lives that can directly improve the quality of life for ourselves and that of others. Choosing willful awareness does not mean you need to give up your lifestyle. We are over-consumers, and can easily reduce to becoming merely 'consumers.' It means making positive changes for self and others.

For example: obesity is now a national epidemic, with over two thirds of Americans classified as overweight or obese. Changing our eating behavior and increasing exercise are two simple behavioral changes that could directly impact ourselves and others around the world. If we were to reduce our food consumption (and perhaps reducing meat consumption as well), we can reduce our carbon footprint, create more food resources for others on the planet, and improve our own health and well-being. And, Americans discard 40 percent of our food on a daily basis! Make less food, eat less food, buy less food (smaller proportions and by food sharing), and discard less food.

Whatever steps we take, the first step is a commitment to stay aware of the problem, to not escape into willful ignorance.

I'm reminded of the family I met in the Malawian village whose Christmas celebration consists of every member in the family getting an Orange Fanta soda. As I return to our affluent lifestyle and the Christmas exchanges likely to take place, I'm thinking of putting an Orange Fanta in my Christmas stocking -- as a reminder to stay awake.