Children of Privilege

Every time I travel with my kids, there’s a moment that gives me pause. It’s not the moment when I’m stepping onto a plane for five hours with four kids. That’s when I’m eyeing the emergency exit and wondering if I can make a hasty escape if the kiddos get too rowdy at cruising altitudes.

Nor is it that earlier moment when we’re standing in line at airport security, and I recall Garrison Keillor’s rant about the shoe bomber. Thanks to Richard Reid’s foiled attempt, all of us must now bare our feet to walk through metal detectors. What would have happened, Keillor wonders, if the guy had made an underwear bomb? Would we all have to remove our underwear to walk through security?

No, no we wouldn’t. Because new millimeter-wave scans have replaced metal detectors at six U.S. airports, essentially giving TSA personnel Superman’s X-ray vision to see through your clothes. These scanners, soon to be rolled out across the nation, may make TSA positions the most sought-after jobs in Homeland Security. Especially if they’re hiring teenage boys.

My reverie is abruptly interrupted by the fact that I’m holding up the line. I snatch a couple of rubber bins, and my children begin to empty their electronics into them: DVD players. MacBooks. Nintendo DS games. They aren’t required to fully empty their backpacks of the DVD case that houses the millions of movies intended to keep them occupied on the flight. Or their nanos and iPods.

This is what gives me pause. (Mental pause. I don’t dare hold up the line again as there are enough people looking reproachfully at the distracted woman with too many children.)

I’m pushing my shoeless (and perhaps underwear-less…forgot to check ‘em on the way out of the house!) kids through the metal detectors and shepherding their belongings through the security machines, but I’m seeing all their STUFF. And I hear Madonna singing We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl in my head. It’s a bad sign when you hear Madonna singing to you in the airport.

It’s not just that my kids have so much, and they are boarding yet another plane to a magic kingdom or a balmy beach. It’s that my children, and most others living in American suburbs, are privileged and blessed, and we rarely acknowledge that fact. Our kids are largely sheltered from malnutrition, war, hard child labor and emotional abuse. (Ryan might take issue with the last two assertions since he considers making his bed an unfair labor practice and contends that growing up with three sisters constitutes emotional abuse.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not raising a Paris Hilton or Suri Cruise. I try to have my kids work for the things they want in life. And I work to teach them that life is not about things. I hope to inculcate them with the notion that they can and should give back joyfully and generously.

Even so, there’s a scene from the movie Schindler’s List that haunts me. Near the end of the movie, there is a line of Polish Jews (saved from concentration camps by Schindler) waiting to have their gold fillings removed from their teeth. The gold fillings are melted down and made into a ring for Oskar Schindler that reads: Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

The gift breaks Schindler. He weeps and wonders how many more lives he could have saved. Would his watch have saved a few more people? What could he have given up that would have been insignificant in his life, but would have meant life itself for another?

The scene has stayed with me over the years, oft resurrected by the reality of working in an international children’s charity. I hesitate to write about this stuff for a variety of reasons: I’m involved with this all day long at work. It’s guilt-inducing. It’s hypocritical given the chasm between how I live and how I know I could give.

Maybe it’s important to exist in the dichotomy. One week, I’m singing Zippity Do Dah with my kids on Main Street, Disney, and the next, I’m listening to stories of little girls who are sold on the main streets of too many of the world’s cities.

My colleague, Richenda, recently sat me down to answer some questions about motherhood for a video blog she’s creating for Mother’s day. “Has working at World Vision had any impact on my experience as a mother?” she asked?

I’m not a great interviewee on camera, so I have no idea what I said in response. What I know is that World Vision has been a reality check to my whole life for the past 16 years. Convicting, but not always comfortable.

I was four months into my first pregnancy, when I headed off to Romania to work on stories for the magazine. Eric planned to paint the nursery and put up the border we had selected while I was traveling and away from the paint fumes. Friends were talking about baby showers for us and so I had stopped by Target to complete a baby registry before my trip. Baby bottle options spanned 4 shelves and overwhelmed me. There were diaper genies. Wet wipe warmers. And bathtub water thermometers to ensure that you wouldn’t scald your baby. (Can’t you test the water with your hand?)

It was 1996. Six years since communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, and television news crews exposed the world to the horrific conditions of Romania’s orphanages. Even with great improvements, the orphanage I visited in Bucharest still housed 100 babies, their metal cribs lined up in rows across the single room. No Pottery Barn baby bedding there.

When Ryan and Paige were born in 2001, I thought of the mother of twins I met in a village in Tanzania years earlier. She had lost three babies before World Vision drilled a well in her area for clean water and built a health clinic for the community. When I met her, she had healthy twins: A girl named Emma; a boy named Emmanuel because “God is with us now,” she told me. We had given her two booklets to record the dates of immunizations for each child. She led me to her hut and showed me that she kept the booklets in the flyleaf of her Bible.

God gains pleasure from watching children thrive and play. I know this because after years of exuberant excitement awaiting Easter baskets and egg hunts and Christmas mornings, I’m on the other side of the events now, hiding the eggs and wrapping the presents. If anything, there’s perhaps even more appreciation in the act of planning for someone’s pleasure and watching the unmasked joy of tearing open a gift.

The goal is not to live in deprivation and beat our selves up for being born privileged. It’s more the recognition that no matter how tight the economy, how middle-class we feel, how dire our circumstances seem at times, we have so, so much more than most of the world around us. And we have the ability to make such a huge difference in even the small things we choose to do with the resources given to us (time, talents, treasure).

I’m kind of hoping that in my family at least, I’ll be able to make tweaks and adjustments to my consumerism so that I can walk through airport security without Madonna singing songs in my head.

I’d prefer to make the journey to whatever gate thinking about the other Madonna. And her Son.

And the fact that His life, I guess, makes us all children of privilege.


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