Progress is us
Growing up in a country with no economy, progress meant money. Money to buy salt and flour. Money to buy a second pair of pants. Money to make life easier and removed from the land. You see, we spent most of our time growing food for us and our livestock. With no tractors, we used hand-held equipment and horses. It meant spreading manure with a pitchfork, harvesting potatoes by hand, and transporting those potatoes from the field to a root cellar on a horse cart. There was no end to our work, and we considered it anti-progress—a sign of our ruralness and backwardness.
Mom wanted things that could do work for her: a washing machine, a food processor, and an electric kettle. I also knew she envied women whose hair wasn’t wrapped in a headscarf and who wore clean clothes and had smooth skin on their heels. She never left the house without scrubbing her feet. Progress for her was a better equipped kitchen, a freezer, and new wallpaper, preferably Polish.
We experienced progress when Dad took us on our first family vacation to the Black Sea in Odessa. We did it not because we had enough money—we tented on the beach and cooked over a camp fire—but because we allowed ourselves to take time off from the land and animals. Progress for Dad meant more time for fun and entertainment. But nobody in his family understood it. His mother told him he lost his mind and that “normal people don’t do this.” And when Dad moved us to the U.S. so we could have more of that kind of progress, grandma’s world turned completely upside down. “You are never happy with what you have,” she told Dad. “If you work hard enough here, you’ll have everything you need.” She was right, but my parents didn’t want to work all the time. They were sick and tired of always coming home from their full-time jobs to more work.
While still in Belarus, progress for me meant seeing Mom in a white pants suit, with a stylish haircut, painted fingernails, and golden bracelets and necklaces. This was what I also pictured for myself–a better looking me. I was convinced it was money that separated my simple village Mom and me from becoming beautiful and charming.
But when we moved to the U.S., nobody changed. Nobody got better looking or more charming—we were the same people as when we lived in Belarus. Even a decade later when my parents had finally achieved their American Dream and could afford to go on vacations and buy gold bracelets and necklaces, they still didn’t. Dad still works all the time and Mom doesn't buy anything that is not on sale. But their house is equipment with things that do work for them. And now, instead of food, they grow grass–a big sign of progress!
Achieving progress not only didn’t make my family better, it contributed to its disintegration. There was no need anymore to grow vegetables, raise livestock, go mushroom hunting, or collect wild berries. In other words, there was no need to be connected to the land. By losing this connection, we lost ourselves.
I chased progress through education, travel, and other people. Progress meant getting the highest degree there is, speaking multiple languages, and associating myself with the people at the top of their game. But none of those things made me feel better about myself, not even the highest degree there is. On the day I got it, I felt sad and ordinary and not grand and important like I pictured in my head. I started thinking maybe progress wasn’t about looks, achievement, or even money, maybe there is a different dimension to it.
That dimension opened up to me when I moved to Uganda for my doctoral research. In one of the poorest countries in the world, I found my progress. It was there I started to feel fulfilled, grounded, and at ease with myself. I felt it when holding a hand of an orphan, talking to a Rwandese refugee, watching people on the brink of extinction sing and dance, and looking at the sunsets over the land that birthed the human race.
Progress felt wonderful but also painful because it didn’t last. Life happens in cycles and it would have been foolish of me to expect I could spend the rest of my life in that peaceful bliss. What came next can be described in one word: hell. Hell of knowing I would never return to what I felt in Uganda. But this hell gave me a sense of direction – a roadmap of what I should look for in life. It reconnected me to the land and myself.
Now, progress is watching ants in my backyard carry away seeds that dropped from the bird feeder. It is noticing the shape and direction of the petals of desert flowers growing around my house. It is observing a qual take a bath in the pot with my raspberry bush and, instead of anger, experience pure love and admiration for a creature that is no different from me.
Progress is wrong. Who invented it anyway? It sounds like the opposite of it is something bad and archaic and that if you are not after progress, you are not with the times. But it is progress that makes us anxious, depressed, and sick. Progress is advocated for by the people in power who want us to think we need it to feel fulfilled. But it is the opposite that brings us inner peace ‑ the desire to want nothing.
When we want nothing, we are open to everything. And it is in this space that magic happens–we finally have no expectations for ourselves or others. When I adopted this, I started to experience less tension within me. Now, my goal is to separate myself from my degrees, past, and other people to experience what I really am. And that is far more valuable for our and our planet’s wellbeing than achieving progress.
Progress is not chasing after money or better places to live (they bring only more tension to our lives) but looking inside of us for answers. Progress is us.