Facing the Dark Suffering of the World (Addendum)

*Ok, here is the bottom line: can we boost economies in developing countries without distorting or destroying the good things about those cultures? Is that even the right goal? Are we really to be about economy boosting or people loving?

Or neither? Do we do people in developing countries the greatest good by staying out of their way (and keeping other people out too)? Do they just need time to figure it out? Or are the needs in such places so desperate they demand action from us?

Clearly that seems to be the case. In such rabid instability the conditions are created not only for extreme poverty but for violent crime that soon leaks out beyond the borders. If we do nothing, we pay the price so to speak.

But do what? Where there are over-crowding, limited natural resources, and little to no local economies people are left with very few options. Being very poor is normal, but can be sustainable, and is not in all cases the worse existence. 

Better to be poor and maintain cultural identity than to have too many options and risk being lured away into other traditions? OR is cultural compromise a necessary condition of globalism? IF we are to take the opportunities afforded, is there a necessary price to pay?

It seems that is the case. The price is the inevitable pull toward materialistic life. Things become more important than people. Comfort takes on all new precedence. People get economic mobility but tossed in with it are some inherent vices.

So is it worth it? Starvation and extreme poverty on one hand or compromised traditional culture with a few scattered bottom of the global barrel jobs on the other. How does one know? How do honest business men in Cambodia know?

The bleakness of the picture or the frailness of the system serve to remind us, if nothing else, that there are other forces involved. The world is not merely or only economic. There are other values to consider, there may even be other worlds to consider.

That otherworldliness thing is probably the expertise of poverty. Those in its grips are almost always gifted with a healthy "far way" detachment from daily life. And, to be honest, for us caught in the throes of first-world navigation, that can be a welcomed reprise.

For most of the world's poor [not speaking here about extreme poverty] there is a remarkable sense of contentment. Certainly this could be seen as weakness, a result of ignorance, but sentimentally there seems to be an envied simplicity that goes beyond this world.

Contentment is not something to be "educated" out of the poor, perhaps it is a gift to the world. Perhaps the poor offer those of us with material resources retreat from that awful first-world poverty Mother Theresa noted (loneliness). Perhaps we need the poor.

Even more than we need them. At the risk of sounding exploitive, we must note the willingness of almost all great spiritual leaders to be poor. There are some freedoms we find only there in poverty, some inner resources the whole world could use. 

Facing the Dark Suffering of the World (Part 6)

Finally what keeps most people away from human relief and development work is the overwhelming magnitude of the problem. It is hard to know what we can do. And, frankly, it feels very serious, almost like we can’t enjoy life if we do it.

What if the opposite were true? What if we couldn’t enjoy life unless we are doing it? In other words, what if mission work is not a cosmic kill-joy? What if it actually is great fun, great community, great adventure? What if we forgot we were doing mission?

Of course there comes a time in any mission that the weight of the poverty and the physical strains take their toll. But there is also something luring about the whole thing, giving life meaning and bringing people together in very unusual ways.

What if mission is actually the great community developer of the future? What if the loads of young adults not sure what to do with life could somehow engage with and belong to a mission community (sort of like a monastic order of sorts)?

It may sound idealic to think of a communal sort of living situation (similar maybe to hotels) but why not? What is stopping us from really pursuing such a living situation? They exist in so many other parts of the world as realities.

Now, of course, those who actually do live in such mission communities would be the first to tell you of the enormous challenge. It is not an “easy” way or an “escape” sort of life. It is a commitment to sharing, giving, living with others in mind.

Americans are absolutely scared of that. We love our privacy. We love our freedom to do what we want when we want. Those certainly are not bad things. But are they that good? Is the return on those ends that great? Look around.

It seems younger Americans particularly are ready for a new sort of life. They are tired of chasing a dream that may not exist, and if it does may not be that worth it. They want more. There is so much more, just outside of our grasps.

Who will brave enough to try? Of course there are intentional communities throughout the states already, many doing very interesting things with the arts and social action. Most under the radar. Most not hip, sexy, or cool.

That’s the hard sell. At the end of the day, community, like actually making a life out of the arts, is not all that fun. It takes hard work, intentionality, long nights, lousy sleeping situations, and so forth to make dreams happen, who really wants that?

But what is the alternative? What are our other options? In this current culture we have only to try, to see what can become of our ideas. They may translate, they may eventually sort of pay for themselves, but they may not.

This is not for the faint-hearted. This is exclusively for those who refuse to barter with social systems that counter their ideals. It’s for those who care too much, who love all but must make hard choices now for a future world that is worth all the sacrifices!  

Facing the Dark Suffering of the World (Part 5)

The “world” for so many is a system of self-centered gain and ruthless carnage for all who get in the way. It is a built on taking things at whatever cost for oneself. Self-interest is the really the only motivation in such a world.

Yet there is another world. It is one we share with all humans. It is the “one blood” reality. No matter our language, no matter our culture, no matter our gender, no matter our perspective, we are all one race sharing the essential quality.

In this sense the world is not necessary evil it is latent potential. It is first article “good.” It is the reminder that God is Creator of all (and therefore it’s Father). It pulls us beyond our creeds to see the humanity of individuals from so many various backgrounds.

How do we get from one world to the other? How do we know which one we are dealing with? How does it go from being basically good to being downright evil? Perhaps this is just the question to get us launched into our discussion on suffering.

What is clear is that “the world” in the bad sense is a pattern of thinking, a perspective, and way of looking at life. Generally speaking, it is to see life as non-spiritual, merely material, humans in that sense are stripped of soul (or at least it is minimized).

People become a means to an end. Sometimes this end can be methodically intellectual, an idea or belief system taken to the farthest degree (think Naziism, Communism). People must fit into this system of thinking.

Sometimes it is only loosely rational. People are simply props to my ever-unfolding dream. They are here, real, and possibly meaningful, but only in the sense they help me achieve my goals, namely survival of the fittest.

People are not, in this version of the world, spiritual beings - profoundly human, a mystery to be celebrated. They are temporary means to an end. The world tends to deal only in the most concrete currencies, namely survival.

Often the leaders of this version of the world are extremely determined, powerful men. Though their ideologies may be at times abhorrent, they have one thing right: we can do what we want. We have the power to do amazing things as humans.

If we decide to end poverty we could. Not that we can actually get in and make people change, but we can change the conditions, systems, and structures that perpetuate cyclical poverty. We could, with concerted effort, actually change this.

Are we determined enough? Do we care enough? Do we believe enough in the power of transcendent ideas to motivate people? Do we believe the innovations of technology can foster more than economic development for first world countries?

Who gets to determine what kind of “world” this will be is largely up to us. Are we willing to remain in the Way, slowly and steadily working for long-term peace? Are we committed to believing the power of good is worth it?  

Facing the Dark Suffering of the World (Part 4)

So the creative impulse somehow births in the midst of suffering. Perhaps it is the impotence to “do” anything about the overwhelming issues. That lack leads to a need for some outlet. The creative world provides a much needed venue.

Is it a cop-out? Let’s save that question. What is born in the trenches of that true compassion (for others, and believe it or not, for ourselves) is art. It is a way to combat the evils, to slay the giant drug lords, to make some real impact.

Artists will soon face the very strange dilemma of what to do with these art pieces, created in the trenches of longing. What purpose can they serve and how worthwhile is their exploitation to the world? Can it stand for such art to be sold?

Considering its beginnings, birthed out of a desire and incompetence to help in more practical ways, it seems all the sillier to somehow profit off such art. Yet if such creating truly is a calling and truly actually helps, why wouldn’t we?

Perhaps in a perfect world art was never intended to be sold. Perhaps artists were and are necessarily to remain, like Franciscan Monks, poor. Perhaps there is an identification with the poor and suffering because it is true for them.

That may be to some degree true. But “success” does not necessitate neglect of such things. There are examples of artists who have become commercially successful and yet stay very focused and involved in their communities and with the poor.

Those artists in some ways give their followers a path. It comes down to an age old question: is the goal of development work really to develop OR is it simply to be with and care for? In other words, do we want the poor to remain such?

If the goal is development and actually equipping the poor than the artist must learn how to do this as well. The artist must become entrepreneur and insist his art become a valuable commodity. This is a desire we must learn to explore and validate.

There is always a tension in development work between the almost romance of poverty (assumes sort of an accept things how they are approach) and the struggle to “get out.” What are we getting out to? Whose world wins as the goal?

That begs the question: is success in the financial sense a particular culture’s world? Or is truly open to all, free of any ethnic preferences? And if it is open to all, do some have natural proclivities and cultural boosts to such a way of thinking and being?

How can we make it ok to succeed? How can we make it guilt-free to advance? Is there a way to get past the cultural bondage of scarcity? If I win, you lose. Is there a way to trust advancement, to see it as not soul-defying?

To get to this we must wrestle down the concept of “the world” offered by many religions. “The world” is seen as the system of success whereby people slowly decay into acquiring machines and lose their ability to be compassionate.

Facing the Dark Suffering of the World (Part 3)

Sometimes we mistakenly think that feeling guilty for what we have is some sort of worthy penance for what we do not share.  We end up not enjoying what we have. But does that really do any good?  Does that help either us be more compassionate or the poor be more empowered? Not really.  It simply confuses the real mission. 

This is where it gets very tricky.  Born American middle class we really do have SO much, but that is always relative to what's around us.  And what's around us is more wealth. We see both sides: extreme wealth and extreme poverty. We feel the burden to somehow lessen the gap.  How do we start, knowing we were born with blood on our hands?

The American middle class is perfectly situated to be a case study either in greed or compassion. Literally being between the extremes we are almost given to think those the only options. They, of course, are not.

Compassion can certainly be used as an excuse for laziness. In the name of associating with the poor we can forgo pesky work loads to take life at a simpler, lighter pace. Is that really doing the poor themselves any good? 

Greed of course is over-stated. From certain perspectives any sort of initiative is ultimately wrought with greed. Anywhere down the line where someone stands to sustain their vision there is some sort of greed attached. There has to be some positive form of greed. Call it ambition, initiative, leadership, hutzpah, etc, not all is bad. Even those who start non-profits in our sarcasm-rich culture can ultimately get the epithet: greedy one. The unintended consequence is that we create two fictitious options for most young adults: be greedy and win, or be compassionate and lose with the rest of us. Part of loving the poor, ironically, requires we adjust our thinking on this.

We have inherited a sense of guilt with winning, with profit, with success. There is no doubt. It is almost easier in today’s world to fail. We are so suspicious of those who succeed, especially those who succeed continuously. How are they doing it? Are they paying people off? Have they made a deal with the devil? Are they simply ruthless? Do they stay up all night every night scheming ways to make more money? That is certainly how it seems today.

Certainly we have seen corrupted men succeed. Whether bank CEO’s, organized crime leaders, or franchise owners, men who do little to none of the work stand to make the most money on other people’s backs. That is the perception.

*And today it feels like the well has dried up. Those who will succeed have. There is no room for newbies. All these suspicions create a scarcity mentality: “there is not enough, only certain people will get it, wealth is a privilege I am not afforded.”

Facing the Dark Suffering of the World (Part 2)

Some will, with razor sharp intelligence and precision, associate suffering with poverty, and poverty with injustice. They will compelling point out how the wealthy few make decisions in their self-interest that negate the needs of the many.

They, in most cases, decry this phenomena as obscene and unnecessary. In so doing they will often either employ some faith roots (often Roman Catholicism) or point out the feebleness of piety-driven religions aimed mostly inward.

In both cases they are usually quite accurate. Still most themselves fall quite short when it comes to envisioning solutions that could actually work in the real world. Most are meant not to provide answers but to provoke passion about the problems.

Is there something to this almost prophetic approach? Let’s help the people feel the unfairness at a visceral level. Let’s let that anger and passion rouse a future-response that will be far more suited to long-term solutions and steps toward change.

God Himself tried to prohibit super-rich and super-poor in the Hebrew Scriptures. The year of Jubilee was set everything back, keep people from cyclical poverty or extreme wealth and acquisition. Did people find ways around the system?

Surely. But fundamental to it was the idea that it’s not about all that. No matter what was coming. Everything would be reset. Certainly that would effect the way people were driven. Would it be worth pursuing more in year 48?

Can we get to that point today, where somehow the rich are challenged to stop amassing? Or at least to give generously? Of course, those with the money can dictate to those without how the money will be used or shared.

Can the rich find ways toward innovation? Can we find ways to connect the rich (the money) to those doing innovative things to help the poor? Could we create a system or process that would accomplish that very thing?

We do not go blindly into compassion.  We cannot afford to be so emotional about things that are so complex.  If we do we end up hurting the very people we aim to help.

If we are so set on "fixing" a problem than likely we will go to any length to make it happen.  We can lose sight of the people.  We can lose sight of our humanity.

When we reduce humans to social problems with systematic issues we can clinically go into a situation aiming to help and simply replace one tyrant for another: ourselves.

Instead we need to listen to the people.  We have to work slow, and humbly.  There are no shortcuts. That's no excuse for being lazy.  We are deliberate, patient, watchful.

Facing the Dark Suffering of the World (Part 1)

Sooner or later we are confronted with abject horror in the world. It is everywhere, but particularly certain places. When discovered, it can totally wreck any ideologies built on hope that we have constructed. When found, everything else adjusts.

When one discovers that 1/3 of the world is so poor that selling their sons and daughters into slavery sounds like a good idea, it is overwhelming. How can this be? And why on earth do I have it so well? How can it be so unfair?

It’s been said 1/3 of the world is dying of causes related to starvation and 1/3 to overeating. Those kind of realities will fundamentally mess with who we think we are and what life is all about. We go from thinking one way to having to think another.

All the joy, beauty, and hope we find to be so binding and needful in our existence seems to deflect meaninglessly for these realties. There seems to be no intersection, or that the reality of our world can only remain in the ignorance of theirs.

Yet surrendering to suffering has a counter-intuitive effect. It does not bring us closer to caring for and serving the person in need. Ironically us being miserable does the world no good. We must internalize the suffering then transcend it.

I personally will never forget playing guitar music for a homeless shelter once. I was feeling the weight of their situations and what was coming out was darker blues music. A teenager rebuked me: “man this is a homeless shelter, we don’t need blues.”

What I thought was an attempt to connect was actually getting me the exact opposite. I was pushing away, and ultimately thinking very selfishly about the whole thing. I was feeling the blues, but that is not what was needed.

*Somehow it is incumbent upon the leader to look square in the face of the suffering but not be swallowed up by it. God is good. There is always hope. If some chose to find none there is nothing we can do. Find hope. We must find hope.

Where can hope be found? That is the only question. Where can we find hope in the places of such suffering? Where can we hear and see progress being made, despite what appears like only cyclical patterns of poverty?

That is where a new sort of hearing comes in. It is not the kind that hears and sees only what is there, but what could be. It starts with what is good, it sees potential, it harnesses the power of vision, it is the heart of a new generation.

It doesn’t have to stay the same. We can retain the essence of what is good without accepting the necessity of what is not. We can realize the mercy of God in the now and the power of God in the future. We can trust in transformative process.

But it will require suspending immediate belief. It will require not accepting what seems inevitable. It will challenge our sense of calling, our scope of responsibility. It will lay things at our feet we once thought had no business there. Are you ready?