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Commentary: The good life

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At the beginning of the semester in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course I gave my freshmen students a handout that contained three questions for them to ponder. (1) What kind of life do you want to live? (2) How do careers and professions fit into that kind of life? and (3) How will you use your time at university to develop the skills, values, habits, experiences and networks to get started? Part of the rationale behind this assignment is to get students to start thinking about what they want to major in, but also to have them think more critically about the culture they are part of.

Over the course of the semester we learned how people the world over have devised unique, workable solutions to problems that all humans face. Problems like being hungry, curing those who are ill, or getting along with others. Following the roadmap laid out by Kansas State anthropology professor Michael Wesch, we stepped out of our own culture, biases, and assumptions and learned that much of what we take for granted as reality is very different in other parts of the world. In doing this, we discovered a tremendous wealth of possibility in the human condition – physical capacities we did not know we had, unique and insightful ways of seeing and talking about the world, and different ways of surviving and thriving in a wide variety of environments. We also encountered different ways of thinking about love, identity, gender, race, morality, and religion. My students noted that learning about different ways of being was liberating, giving them a broader vision of what is possible.

Fast forward to last Tuesday. As we began to wrap up the semester, we explored the concept of “the good life” by considering how values and virtues differ around the world, how they are the same, and how we might create social institutions and cultural norms that foster “the good life.” I then asked the students what they would like in an ideal world. I gave them five minutes to write down what was important to them. The answers were impressive. As they shared their thoughts, patterns emerged. They all wanted the same things - free healthcare, free higher education, gender and racial equality, the ability to live their lives safe from war and violence. They wanted everyone to have a roof over their head and enough food to eat. And they wanted these things for everyone regardless of skin color, religion, or immigration status.

Next I asked them if the world in which they currently live fosters this kind of life. They responded emphatically “NO!” We then discussed how the current values and ideals created by generations past do not allow them to live their values. I reminded them that as individuals, they may feel unable to bring about change, but when we work together, with intention and patience, change is possible. We have great examples throughout history who have shown us the way. Martin Luther King, Jr., C.T. Vivian, Mother Teresa, Gloria Steinem, Mahatma Gandhi, and Paul Farmer to name a few.

As another year draws to a close and we start to consider what changes we want to make in the coming year, remember that change begins at home. For my students, my children and future generations I am going to continue to focus on trying to ensure that people in my community have enough food to eat. So while “Giving Tuesday” has passed, there are many wonderful organizations in our community that provide food assistance to those in need all year long. Loaves & Fishes, the Good Food Collaborative, Western Illinois Regional Council, the Salvation Army to name a few. Pick something close to home that can make a positive change in your community. As Mother Teresa once said, “It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.”

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.