You know the saying: “The more things change . . . . ” Looking through the past, remembering the days following 9/11 and the attack on the U.S. by people labeled terrorists, I came across something I had written in 2003.
Elena, a teacher of linguistics at a university in Russia, wrote to me. She was teaching a language and culture course on the relevancy of Russia and Latin America to each other and to the rest of the world. Her class was focusing on Costa Rica, and she asked me to write about my first and then later impressions of the country. I sent her my book and the students were intrigued with the chapter on Costa Ricans’ pet peeves. In their discussion they agreed that Russians have pretty much the same complaints, which ranged from overweight doctors telling them to diet to people taking out their cell phones in a restaurant. In short, these two seemingly very different people were annoyed by the same bad habits of others. The students seemed rather surprised at how similar they were.
That same year a poll of what Costa Ricans considered the main problems facing them and the country and their sense of well being showed that their primary concern was unemployment, next came crime and violence, then the high cost of living and resulting poverty. They were also worried about corruption and drug addiction, both of which are probably related to the other problems. There was very little dissatisfaction with the quality of education on their list of concerns, and neither good health care nor terrorism made the list at all.
Thinking about the Russian students’ responses to Costa Rican pet peeves made me wonder if their concerns would also resemble those in the poll. I believe that feeling secure and free, having a decent job that pays enough to live, and decent medical care when one needs it are the main concerns of people throughout the world, no matter what their nationality, culture or political structure.
When I worked at the International House, a residence for university students from around the world, I would sometimes overhear my assistant telling students who came into her office that, in fact, we all are really the same the world over. We all want the same things in life and therefore should get along. Sometimes I couldn’t resist joining the conversation and saying that although I agreed that we all may want the same things in this life, and a
happy afterlife, if it exists, we have different ways of getting them or there. And therein lies the problem. It is the different journeys we choose to take, not the hoped for destination, that causes most of the problems between people and nations.
It would be nice if we all could just take a leap of faith in ourselves and follow our own paths with confidence without harming others and without the need to coerce others to do the same. (If you want to change somebody, be the example they want to emulate, was always my advice to proselytizing students.) But that seems too much to ask of human beings or countries in this day and age – or any age for that matter.
Costa Rica, both the country and its people, do try to live and let live and lead only by example. I sometimes think of it as a blue jean revolution.
Today, no matter where you go in the world you will see people wearing blue jeans – people of all nationalities, income, class and religion (or almost all).
You seldom see repetitive advertising of jeans, and no coercing. Jeans just proved to be a versatile piece of clothing and as more people wore them, more followed suit (or should I say “followed pants”?) And by now they are accepted as appropriate wear for almost all occasions.
All I am saying is wouldn’t it be nice if we could just agree to disagree about trying to live a good life without harming others to do it or insisting that my way must be your way. If it feels comfortable and worth imitating, others will follow. We don’t need to destroy in order to convince others or show our objection to their way of life, nor do we need to invade them.
That was 2003. Now . . .”the more they remain the same.”