My first wife was not happy with the house we lived in. It was in a small town, on a quiet street, with a backyard, a driveway, a garage, a front and back porch, three bedrooms upstairs, a living room, dining room, eat in kitchen, full basement, fireplace and studio with a skylight. I liked it. But she felt it was too small, even though both of our girls had their own room, she had a large studio, and even I had a small workshop in the basement. She wanted to find a bigger house, similar to the one she had grown up in, in a wealthy suburb. To her, the default position was to live in a house that was big enough to not be exactly sure how many rooms there were, and to feel that space was almost unlimited. She felt she had descended from the default position.
At the same time I had gotten involved in a religious organization doing charity work in the resettling of refugees in our town. I was a peripheral player, mostly doing grunt work, like hauling furniture, and helping to fix up an apartment that the group had rented for a family about to arrive from Russia. I also did a lot of driving. I drove the family from the airport back to their new apartment in our town. It was a husband and wife, the man’s mother, and a teenage daughter, the only one who spoke any English.
A couple of people from the organization met the family in the apartment, and I helped bring their suitcases inside. They were shown the master bedroom, the living room, the smaller bedroom, and the kitchen. The woman looked around carefully in the kitchen, and the other rooms, speaking to the daughter in a low voice. She didn’t seem terribly pleased, although she smiled politely. When she got to the bathroom, she said something that sounded like a question. The leader of our group asked the daughter what she had asked. The girl asked shyly “Is one bathroom?” Our leader replied that yes, unfortunately we could only afford an apartment with one bathroom. He then asked her what her mother thought about the place. There ensued a brief family discussion and then the girl said
“Is very nice apartment. My mother say kitchen small, but OK. But please, we like to ask, which room is ours? And how many families to share?”
When we were able to explain that no other families were sharing the place, that it was entirely for them, they were incredulous, and they all began to cry with wonder. The man sank to his knees to pray. We were all hugged by each of them, and of course we were all crying as well.
The Russian family’s default position was to live in a single bedroom, in a two bedroom apartment shared with four other families.
We all have different default positions, for our own lives, and also for the status of humanity. For some, the default position for humanity is one of universal peace, happiness, brotherhood, a good, clean and happy world, where there is no illness, sorrow, or pain. Anything less than that is unacceptable, and a source of anger, frustration and despair.
For me that world is a goal, but not the default position. I think of the default position for the life of a human being as being one of constant hunger, poor shelter, fear of animals, violence, and struggle to survive. After all, what is a human being, other than an animal, a hominid with a large brain, and hands that can make things? Animals live according to how their parents lived. Humans search for food, try to stay warm, hide from the big cats, and raise their young as best they can, hoping that one or two will survive childhood.
When human beings learned how to fish, about 25,000 years ago, that was a big step up from the default position. So was agriculture, and houses, and writing, and music, and art, and technology, and air conditioning, and fast cars and airplanes and computers.
We have continued to raise our default position from its origins for thousands of years. And that is a remarkable thing. No other animal has ever done that. Look around you. Almost everything you see is a wondrous miracle of human undertaking to transcend our default position.
While some argue whether the glass is half empty or half full, for me the default position is an empty glass, so I am filled with wonder at the miracle that there is any water in the glass at all. This is why all of my prayers are of thanksgiving.