400: Carmen Sandiego (And Bagged Concrete) Helped Me Find My True Self
If you had asked me three months ago to locate the Tribhuvan International Airport on a globe, I probably wouldn’t have pointed within a 500 miles of the place. In case you don’t know either, it’s the airport that welcomes you to Kathmandu, Nepal. World travelers have ranked it one of the five worst international airports on the planet. Dirty and in disrepair, it makes getting to the domestic gate area require the skills we used as kids to find Carmen Sandiego.
The domestic terminal includes a prolific quantity of wires hanging from the walls and ceiling, holes in the floor called “toilets,” and few seats. The power flickers on occasion and often just stays off. Incredibly, nobody else seems phased by a dark terminal. It barely pauses conversations. (Later, our flight would be delayed because of lack of runway lights.) You can watch the gate agents manually change the flight updates in a word processing program on the little TV screen by the restroom. A couple of the gate counters look like Charlie Brown lemonade stands with little paper signs showing flight numbers crookedly tacked on plywood banners.
While waiting for my postponed flight to Pokhara, I looked around at the advertising. As in all airports, cell phones and cars covered almost half the digital and backlit paper signs. Unlike in other airports, though, the typically-requisite fragrance, fashion, and luxury watch ads never appeared.
You know what asset category dominated the ads?
I’m not kidding: bagged concrete. I counted five different brands. There’s not an airport in America that’d have signs for menial construction materials. There’s not a duty free store in the world that sells concrete, even in Nepal.
Three years ago, earthquakes killed almost 9,000 Nepali citizens and injured more than 20,000 more. It collapsed more than 800,000 homes. Commercial buildings and temples alike crumbled into rubble. Experts estimate the damage totaled $10 billion—in a country where a typical middle class wage is $5 per day. The country is still rebuilding, and they have a long way to go. Rebar protrudes into the air everywhere you look. Concrete, the primary construction material, has become a hotly-contested market.
I was struck by the notion that most advertising—including some of what I create everyday for a living—is likewise aimed at what’s broken in us. That holds true for first world problems and those of developing nations alike. That faster car will remedy your stagnant career. That bigger truck will make the weight of your responsibilities seem lighter. That bigger house will make your life feel more substantive. That air freshener will make your home life less chaotic. That vacation destination will help you forget the dysfunctions of relationships back home. That microwavable food will give you more time to scroll through the social media highlights of the lives you don’t have.
When earthquakes or even just tremors rumble, evil offers us distractions as solutions. When hopes tumble and dreams crash, the secular system rushes in a bevy of shoddy options for propping them back up. When life creates a vacuum, our souls seek to fill it with something temporary. Fame and followers. Money and comfort. Control and autonomy. Unquestioned affirmation. If you don’t believe me, you’ve never scrolled through the Search & Explore results on Instagram.
I’ve confronted this in my own life. I’ve learned crushing #metoo stories from family members and close friends. I lost $55,000 on the sale of our last house. Over the past five years, my wife and I have endured almost $100,000 in unplanned medical, car repair, and home construction invoices. Our past and current accountants have surprised us twice with five-figure tax bills big enough to replace our 12- and 13-year-old vehicles. Last year, I got fired for the first time in my life (from a side job I enjoyed) and had to step down from another teaching gig because the client changed the terms of my employment.
Approaching my fortieth birthday, I faced a rebuild of sorts. I had the same temptations everyone else has—the same options I’ve tried in the past and found empty. I could chase likes on Facebook. I could take on more work and crowd out meditation time. I could binge watch Netflix or escape into porn. I could wallow in alcohol or marijuana. I could throw two middle fingers at God and reclaim my nights and Sundays for more sleep, more nonfiction books, and more blogging.
Instead, God interjected a community of men who love me, who encourage me, who confront me. He gave me voices from other earthquakes to speak true remedies into my soul. In serving others, he showed me joy. He revealed to me parts of his nature that comforted my shaky next steps. He let me find emptiness in certain pursuits before I traveled to greater disillusionment. He showered me with free and cheap travel as a cherry on top.
He gave me premium concrete to fill in the forms of my future life. He poured a foundation to withstand earthquakes that most certainly are coming. And he showed me how he was doing all of that in ads I couldn’t read hanging on the walls in an airport I wanted to escape.
Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com