5 mistakes westerners make when thinking about the world


The world is vast. It’s huge. It’s fascinating. And most of us will only see a tiny portion of it before we die.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time or the means to travel extensively, and therefore we don’t get to see much of what goes on outside of our little corner of the world. Because of this, there are several traps we can fall into — that I fell into — when hearing about and thinking about what goes on out there.

The world is like the place where I live.

suburban-houses

I grew up in a suburb of a very large American city. We weren’t rich, but we always had new clothes for school (even if they were sometimes from the thrift store), and we went to college. My parents bought me a car (a pretty old one, but a car, nonetheless) when I graduated from high school. In some way, I always knew that people in other parts of the world had it different, but I had no idea just how stark that difference actually was.

Once I started travelling I started to realize just how privilieged I had been. Just imagine:

  • In many places, you must know someone in the town where you are going and have them find you accommodations, or stay with them.
  • You can’t go to the McDonalds or Burger King because there isn’t one — you have to decipher local restaurants and eat local food, which isn’t anything like what you’re used to.
  • You can’t use a credit card — any money you get must be taken from an ATM before you arrive.
  • There’s no Walmart.
  • Most people don’t have their own bedroom — they sleep in the living room with their parents, or siblings.
  • Most houses don’t have separate rooms for sleeping.
  • Closets don’t exist — you have to buy furniture to store everything.
  • You don’t wear your shoes in the house.
  • You bargain (haggle) for vegetables in an outdoor market.
  • Every business tries to trick you — you just have to learn how to keep them honest.
  • There’s no 4G, LTE, or 3G
  • No one has any money. But everyone smokes, or used to.
  • The majority of people do not earn a living through a steady job, as we may think of steady jobs. They piece together incomes through odd jobs, agriculture, and help from relatives.

I am informed about most of the important things in the world.

tv-news

The world is so vast, that it is impossible to be informed about the relevant issues affecting people everywhere. Wherever you go, there will always be a host of issues that are incredibly important to people there, about which you had no idea, and which are irrelevant to the place where you live.

At the same time, the world is more connected than ever. But we could never imagine just where those connections exist.

I could probably live anywhere.

hut

Sure. Go ahead and try to live in a place where you can’t go to a “normal” store, where driving is incredibly stressful, you can’t easily go to the doctor, and you get stared at for being a foreigner. After a few months, you’ll probably wish you’d never left home. Most of us Westerners have become quite accustomed to western conveniences, and we get upset about things that people in the rest of the world would consider luxuries.

Things are generally better than they’ve ever been.

utopia

The Syrian civil war is in its 6th year. Russia has started rebuilding its nuclear weapons stockpile. People are still fighting in Ukraine. While we might not be fighting a world war, most of the world’s rich countries are involved in foreign wars, on some level. There is a lot of dying going on — in places that we once thought were on the doorstep of peace and progress.

Things are generally worse than they’ve ever been.

war

Yes, there are wars being fought. But advancements in technology have improved human existence in ways that we never before dreamed possible. Think about the following:

  • In 1900, Pneumonia, Influenza, and Tuberculosis were the largest causes of death — much larger than cancer or heart disease. Today these are all minor concerns, as living conditions and medical advances have changed the landscape completely.
  • In the early 1900s, average life expectancy was 48.
  • 100 years ago, most women who today give birth by Caesarian section would have died in childbirth.
  • 75 years ago, the President of the United States was paralyzed from the waste down by polio — a disease that today has been eradicated in most of the world.
  • Before the modern vaccine era, 500,000 people died each year in the U.S. from measles. In 2013, 61 died from that same disease.
  • 40 years ago, smallpox was eradicated — before then, it killed 500 million people in the 20th century.
  • 30 years ago, violent crime was at an all-time high in the US. Since then, all categories of violent crime have dropped dramatically.
  • In the 1960s, international phone calls were incredibly expensive. Today, you can communicate with anyone in the world for pennies over the internet.
  • Today’s global economy makes it possible to produce consumer goods more cheaply than we ever imagined possible before the 20th century.
  • Modern trade alliances represent international cooperation on a scale that had never been thought possible before the 20th century.
  • Today, surgeons can perform laparoscopic surgeries through tiny incisions that require much less recovery time and cause less pain and trauma to the patient. Soon, doctors may be able to perform most of these without even making incisions, with advances being made in natural orifice endoscopic procedures.
  • There are entire classes of people who are alive today because of modern medicine, who 50 years ago would not have been able to survive. In general, it is much safer and easier to live today than it has ever been.

It’s easier to be alive right now than at any time in human history. Let’s be thankful for the advances in technology that we have experienced, and pray that peace will come quickly to the parts of the world that need it most.

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