Turns out, we don’t have any

When I was ten years old I watched a small girl squatting in the dirt playing with a bone. She was wearing a dirty rag and her limbs were impossibly thin.

I was traveling through Africa which, then as now, is a vast beautiful continent perpetually gripped by tribalism where the more numerous ruthlessly crush the less numerous. And the easiest way to crush a rival tribe is through starvation. It’s difficult to name a country in central Africa that hasn’t seen this tactic employed to great effect at least once during the last sixty years.

The girl was playing with a bone because it was her only toy. Condemned by the random chance of birth to live in a place where violence and death was the norm, her brief life was utterly different from mine, and mine was utterly different from the lives of my Western peers.

I grew up knowing real hunger. Not the idle sort of “man, I could kill for a slice of cheesecake right now” hunger that pampered Westerners refer to when they’re feeling fractionally less sated than normal. I mean real hunger: the sort that twists your guts and has you focusing on the only thing that matters: when, if ever, will I be able to feed my brother and myself again?

So I had some slight purchase on the young girl’s experience. While the others in my group averted their gaze (“Hey man, what can you do, right? I mean, this whole continent is a basket-case”) I gave her what I’d been given for lunch: a small strip of dried beef known as biltong. If she soaked it in water and ate it carefully, perhaps it would provide enough sustenance to keep her alive for one additional day. I also gave her the t-shirt I was wearing. It was all I had.

Although I’ve lived my entire adult life in far less exigent circumstances, I’ve always been an outsider. I hear spoiled self-indulgent Westerners whining endlessly about the most trivial and minor inconveniences and find I have no ability to empathize. It’s like listening to fat children complaining about not being given third portions of ice-cream.

In the West our lives are so comfortable that we’ve had to create our own imaginary stresses. We slump on the sofa, stuff ourselves with junk, binge-watch some entertainment for hours, and then (surprise!) complain that we don’t have enough time for something else. We gawp endlessly at anxiety-provoking sensationalist content and then (surprise!) complain that we’re always fearful. We eat too much of all the wrong things and then (surprise!) complain of the ill-health that automatically follows.

We whine over the slightest inconvenience. Last month, traffic was awful! Today, working from home is (really, darling) the worst possible thing imaginable!

We’ve become so idle that we buy Orwell Boxes and thus install 24/7 surveillance in our homes in order to save ourselves the impossible task of waddling a couple of steps across the room to press a button or turn a knob. And we’re always looking for more things to buy, as if things could fill up the void that sits perpetually within us.

Even today, after an adult lifetime of earning adequate amounts of money, I am profoundly grateful for every mouthful of food I eat. I go to bed each night thankful of the fact I have somewhere safe to sleep. Because there are literally hundreds of millions of us who don’t have those luxuries.

Perhaps that’s why I find it impossible to be drawn into the current media-induced mass hysteria over a virus that, at its very worst, will kill less than 1% of the population. I simply have no patience for the grotesque self-indulgence of a society that blithely condemns 500,000,000 of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people to starvation merely because our media organizations need to grab eyeballs in order to ensure fat revenue streams. I find it repellent that our society, which is perfectly happy to let millions die each year from obesity-related diseases and smoking-related diseases, should suddenly panic over an illness that at its very worst will kill a tiny fraction of these numbers. If life matters then why are we so negligent of the ways in which we shorten it? If life matters then why are we blithely indifferent to mass starvation so long as it doesn’t happen in front of our noses?

Of course, what we believe is entirely dependent on the simple-minded stories the mass media feeds us. And the stories they feed us are the stories that grab our eyeballs, because eyeballs translate into subscription and ad revenues. Our entire worldview is shaped by a mass media that’s totally reliant on creating a perpetual stream of sensationalism. Once a good bit of sensationalism has been found, the media mines it for as long as it can. Staying on message and repeating the same distorted “news” is the most reliable way to ensure fat quarterly bonuses for the executives who run these organizations.

And the media is always very careful to stay on message, not least by studiously avoiding mentioning anything that would indicate the message is profoundly distorted.

Because we’re so pampered and spoiled and ignorant, we lap it up. We never once pause to consider the fact that we’ve become the fat kid who thinks that third helping of ice-cream is their “right.” All we know is our own self-referential self-indulgent universe. Protect the ice-cream! And screw the consequences.

Even today, fifty years later, I can still see that painfully thin young girl drawing in the red-brown dirt with the end of the bone she was clutching in her skeletal hand. I don’t suppose she lived more than a few days after I encountered her. I suspect she died in pain, alone, and her corpse was eaten by dogs and rats while Western children threw temper-tantrums because they weren’t allowed third helpings of ice-cream.

Oh, and that bone she clutched as her only toy? The village head-man said it was the shin-bone of someone who’d starved to death the year before.

Her mother.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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