Thursday, August 03, 2006

Alternate Realities

Morgan Spurlock vaulted to fame with a documentary he did in 2004 called Super Size Me. He featured himself subsisting solely on three meals, often of the largest portions available, a day of McDonald's fast food for a full month. By the end of that torturous month, he was nearly 25 pounds heavier, depressed, sexually dysfunctional, and suffered from significant liver damage that one doctor likened to what would result from severe binge alcoholism. The film was quite successful and paved the way for 30 Days, an FX network series that followed the same essential premise of Morgan placing himself or other volunteers for thirty days into lifestyles markedly different from their own in order to show them and viewers what it's like to live that way.

In the first episode, Spurlock and his girlfriend spent thirty days trying to live off minimum wage jobs. In watching this episode, I was overwhelmed with a sense of just how depressingly difficult it is to make ends meet this way, and I acquired newfound empathy for those who are caught in this kind of lifestyle of having to literally count every penny and being thrown into emotional as well as financial turmoil by the slightest unbudgeted expense and into dire financial straits by illness or injury severe enough to require uninsured or underinsured medical care.

In succeeding episodes of the first season, a man tried to reverse or slow down the aging process with a grueling and controversial regimen of exercise and drug therapy; a devout fundamentalist Christian lived with Muslims and participated in their religious practices; a conservative, heterosexual Christian man lived with a gay man in the Castro district of San Francisco and accompanied him to gay bars and other gay functions; two nightclub employees lived "off the grid" in an ecological commune; and a mother concerned about her college student daughter's excessive drinking took up the bottle herself to discourage her daughter from continuing her path. I admit that I found these latter episodes more gimmicky than informative or compelling, but they were still more interesting than most TV fare.

I missed the first episode of the new season. It aired last week and featured a "Minuteman"--one of a group of private citizens who patrol the Mexican-American border to discourage people from entering the country illegally--living for thirty days among a family of illegal immigrants and working day labor jobs. I think this might have been an enlightening episode, and I'm sorry I missed it.

However, thanks to my Blogger teammate Tom's article yesterday over at Thoughts Chase Thoughts, I was reminded to watch last night's episode and am very glad I did. It featured an American computer programmer who had just lost his job to outsourcing to India leaving his wife and baby in New York City for thirty days to live with a family in Bangalore, India who worked jobs outsourced from America and working an outsourced call center job himself. I was very impressed by the open-minded and open-hearted attitude, intelligence, and perceptiveness with which this man went about his brief but eye-opening life in India. I was also struck by the incredible disparities in wealth between the educated classes who lived fairly well by Western standards and the poorer, equally hard-working classes who crowded into dwellings for which the word "shack" is much too generous a description. It's no wonder that, toward the end of his stay, Chris was caught in the middle of a violent riot in Bangalore that left in shambles many modern buildings and businesses belonging to Western and Indian companies that created wealth and comfort for a select few but left most Indians in dire poverty. It was also fascinating to see some of the other social and cultural effects of the increasing Westernization of India. Interestingly enough, outsourced call center jobs in India that service Western clients, such as the job Chris had, are rather highly respected and well-paying whereas such jobs here tend to be held in low esteem and poorly compensated.

Chris left India with warm feelings toward his adoptive family, with high regard for Indian industriousness and concern for the social and cultural upheavals occasioned by the rapid pace of change there, and with newfound appreciation of the quality of life in America and for the fact that it's so much easier to start a new and decent career and life here when one loses one's job and cannot continue with one's old way of living than it appears to be in India and probably in most other places in the world.

Tom's article suggested that Morgan Spurlock shows Buddhistic benevolence and skillful means in using his talents to foster interpersonal and intercultural empathy, respect, and appreciation the way he does on his show. I'm inclined to agree. I wonder if this kind of immersion, vicarious as well as actual, in other people's lives and lifestyles couldn't serve to accelerate our psychological and spiritual development.

For instance, what would happen if someone from a lower level of psychological and spiritual development lived with and lived the lifestyle of someone of higher development for an appreciable period of time (probably far longer than thirty days)? Or what would happen if large numbers of Islamic would-be terrorists in the Middle East could live with Jewish families in Israel for months or years (without killing them), and Jews could live with Islamists in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East? Might not everyone grow in empathy and respect for the "other side," and might this make some kind of positive difference over time?

Upcoming episodes of "30 Days" feature an atheist living with a family of ardently fundamentalist Christians; an overworked, stressed-out, and cynical father immersing himself in a New Age lifestyle; a staunchly feminist, pro-choice worker in a women's health clinic living and working in a Christian "pro-life" maternity home and participating in its "pro-life" activities; and, finally, Spurlock himself spending thirty days in a county jail.

I'm looking forward to viewing these episodes, gaining new insights, and raising my empathy quotient.


tom said...

Hey! Wait a minute! Your post is much better than mine! You'll pay for this nagarjuna! ::waves fist::

[The next day, Tom had to spend 30 days in jail]

John Smulo said...

Nagarjuna, your post is also much better than either of the two on my blog about 30 Days!

I was especially interested on your thoughts of the show from a Buddhist perspective. I had some similar thoughts about the show from a Christian perspective.

It brings joy to me to see people coming from different perspectives walking a mile in the other's persons shoes. I think the world would be a much better place if there was more understanding--not that people would necessarily agree more--between people. No doubt there would be a lot more peace as well.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, thanks again for reminding me watch that show.

John, thanks for your generous comments. I think that shows like Spurlock's can help us to see other people's lives and beliefs from a number of different perspectives, and I think this is a good thing. I agree with you that it could, indeed, help to promote peace.