Frederick Lewis Allen was editor of Harper's magazine, an historian, and a contemporary commentator for his times: the 1920s and 30s. He wrote about the prosperity bandwagon, those things that swept our nation into a nation of consumerism. Leading the way, and never to get off the bandwagon was the automobile. The radio, motion pictures, fresh vegetables, refrigerators, even rayon, hopped on too.
What surprised Allen, was the priorities these new miracles of invention became in a family's life. The most "potent statistic," of the era's prosperity was the surge in car ownership. In 1919, almost seven million cars cruised American streets. Ten years later, a little more than 23 million cars raced down newly laid road and highways. Cars were becoming the American way of life, often at the expense of previous necessities. In Muncie Indiana, sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd, found that out of 60 car owning families, 21 lacked a bathtub in their home. Allen declares, "The automobile came even before the tub!"
The automobile had redefined necessity.
My friend and neighbor, the water engineer, travels the world to improve water quality and accessibility for people in third world countries. He's helped dig wells, constructed pipelines, installed plumbing, all in an effort to ease the burden of hard working people. He too received the shock of what necessity means when he arrived in South America to bring water to yet another village.
A village leader pulled him aside and told him instead of water lines, they'd prefer to have satellites and televisions installed.
When I first arrived in the Lesvos refugee camp, I was surprised to see how many people had cell phones. Preconceived ideas of a refugee didn't include an iPhone. As we continued to interact with our new found friends, I was even more surprised at the appearance of iPads. It shuffled a few conceptions in my mind too. Here were people without a home, without a country, who'd even left family behind, but they had cell phones?
It didn't take long to learn and understand that when basic necessities are denied, when the sacrifices of country and home are deserted either by choice or force, the cell phone becomes the necessity. It can be the link to that and whom which are left behind. It becomes security, hope, and connection.
When we are secure and safe, our understanding is blurred as to what is necessary and what is not.
When I learned my small donation was needed to buy cell phones for refugees, I had a momentary hesitation. I didn't immediately understand so great a need existed, because I had never said goodbye to a child, unsure if I would see her again, wondering if she'd be safe, wondering if she would live. The cell phones would go to unaccompanied minors, youth whose families sent them first. Such a risk, such trust. If a cell phone could help alleviate some of the worry, misery, and distance between a child and a parent...the cell phone had indeed become a necessity.