Against Disaster Outrage

May 15, 2014

Of course, I am sad for the girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria. I mourn for their families and their communities. But, the reality is, I am not more sad for them than I am for 3.1 children that die each year because of lack of adequate food, or the millions of women that are raped every year, or the 2,400 people who have been killed by U.S. drones in the last five years.

I have concerns about the social media and traditional news media focus on this incident. I feel similarly about the obsession with the Malaysia flight that was lost, the recent Korean ferry disaster, the Haitian earthquake, and I even remember inklings of this concern in the wake of 9/11. My concern is not particularly aimed at individual people who are posting on facebook or sad, but I am speaking more broadly to the disaster/outrage/forget pattern that we are all familiar with by now.

My concerns are several. First, when we focus our outrage and our energy on disasters or dramatic incidents, we distract ourselves from the slow grind of suffering that is all around us, and all around our world. The kidnapping incident is terrible, yes. But it is but one of hundreds upon thousands of terrible, traumatic, and unjust happenings that are routine around our world. We need to train our hearts and minds to be attentive to the world as it is, not as it is filtered through the most sensational news stories of the day. We cannot know all of the suffering in the world, and we certainly can’t be sad or outraged by it all, lest we collapse from the weight of the pain. But, we can be thoughtful in managing our time, energy, and moral outrage. It is not a series of sprints from one disaster to another, but rather a slow, long, and difficult walk of endurance that demands awareness of, and an ongoing attentiveness to, our complicated world. It also demands that we take the time and effort to reflect on what actions we can take, actions that will likely not be easy or without cost to us.

Second, I am particularly concerned with the U.S. tendency to get so worked up about injustice somewhere far away, particularly if the injustice is taking place in Africa (Kony 2012, anyone?) or by those claiming a connection to Islam. I recognize that the outrage and the concern comes from a sincere place, and that it is rare that intentions are bad. Yet, I think we are all called to dig deeper and to ask ourselves why outrage comes so easily for this, but the injustices that are so close to home are not social media sensations.

Finally, the reality is that social and news media outrage does not have a particularly strong record of mattering. Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur have written an early draft of a study on viral social media engagement. They point out that there is very little empirical research on the impacts of such campaigns, but they speculate that, in a flawed and broken political system, social media campaigns have the potential to enhance democracy. I hope that they turn out to be right and that all of the hashtags have not been for naught. However, I suspect that efforts such as #bringbackourgirls primarily serve to provide people a sense of efficacy and mattering, but are not particularly helpful in actually creating change. I think by and large, change is slow hard work. My fear is that much online activism and Facebook outrage serves a palliative function, letting us imagine we are doing something when we are not. I include myself in this, of course. I am well aware of the irony of blogging about the ineffectiveness of hashtags and facebook posts.

And so, six years later, I return to my own words written in 2008 as I grappled with this. At the very least, it is a good reminder for me, but perhaps it will be helpful to someone else as we stumble together toward the world we long for:

I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?

In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that the work of love and justice is often about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world.

We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.

We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.

We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.

People in our world, town, congregations and families will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.

It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snail’s pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.

That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.

Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways.  Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.

This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.

How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?

I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.

Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Too many people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people.

A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.

Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because, to everyone, their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.

Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, to be aware of the ways we perpetuate systems of harm and can work to interrupt those systems, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be, and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need harm-mitigation work.


Turkeys and Thanksgiving and Such

November 21, 2012

This is a time when everyone (including my lovely family) is writing and talking about what they will cook and make for the Thanksgiving meal. As vegetarians and folks who are aware that many Native Americans refer to Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning, it is not quite as exciting for us.

Don’t get me wrong. I really love everyone taking time to be thankful and give attention to our families. I also am very aware that most folks, like us, don’t really tend to associate our holiday traditions with the supposed first Thanksgiving meal. Aside from the ridiculousness taught to most elementary school kids, pilgrims and Native Americans are not really part of Thanksgiving for many of us.

So I get that my feelings about Thanksgiving could be read as crazy liberal stuff, crazy vegetarian stuff. I am certainly not going to raise this with my family or neighbors because I don’t want to be seen as the strange one ruining the fun talking about Native Americans and trying to stand up for turkeys or something. We eat a vegan fall meal in our home on Thanksgiving and welcome anyone who wants to join us.

But, in a way, this is sort of my concern. Because violence get normalized when those who point out the violence (historical or present day) are the “weird” ones.

So, on the one hand, I want to avoid disrupting a nice day by good people who are just trying to have a good meal together. On the other hand, I want not to normalize the history and the killing that is quite literally at the center of this holiday, with the turkey in the middle of the table.

So here is the story we tell in our family around Thanksgiving:

Our son was born at home, at the end of a dead end road in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Our house was up against ten acres of woods and it was quiet and I can’t think of a better place for him to have been born. It was a chilly spring day that he was born. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for over 24 hours. Finally, when I got up for the first time my partner said, “Look out the window!!” I looked out into our back yard, which was right up against the forest and there were 14 wild turkeys, a deer, two bunnies, and a squirrel sitting out in our yard. It was misty out, early in the morning, the day after our son had been born.

We tell him that the animals in the forest knew that a new creature had been born in the woods and they came to welcome him. In a way, I’m sure that is not quite true. But, in another way, I have to wonder if it is. We had never seen any turkeys or deer until this moment – just the occasional bunny and our squirrels.

We tell our son that the turkeys were excited to see him especially because they are simple, peaceful animals and it is a message to us that we do best when we also live simple and peacefully.

We tell him the story of how, many years ago, people lived in the land we now call Plymouth, his birth place, and people came from Europe and wanted to live there too. We haven’t gotten to the details (i.e. the massacres) but in general we point out that it is hard when different people want to live in same place and we need to be thoughtful about how we live with others – the harm we cause and the ways we can lessen that. We tell him that his birth location and his welcome by the turkeys and other animals of the woods is a gift to him to remember the ways that we can live more peacefully, with a spirit of welcome. Eating animals in general seems strange to him since he has never eaten animals and rarely sees others do so. But, we hope that, over time, his birth story helps him remember his connection to animals and to history such that it calls him to make a different sort of world than the one we have.

I get that it might seem hippie or cooky to some. But, for us, it is a small way to say that there is enough killing in the world. There is enough pain and enough violence and we’re just going to do our best to lessen how much of that we take part in, recognizing that we can never fully extract ourselves from this broken world with broken systems of violence that we are a part of. But, at the very least, we’ll try not to celebrate it and try to opt out when we can.


On Hunting

November 14, 2012

I know some vegetarians think hunting is absolutely abhorrent and are quite judgmental about people who hunt, often moreso than just plain old meat eaters. However, I am not one of those vegetarians. I get while people hunt. I get why people eat meat. People around me hunted when I was growing up and they were good, decent, lovely people. My friends post pictures of the deer they kill on facebook or announce proudly that their children shot their first turkey. We live in a world where we all take part in violence. Sometimes it is with what we eat. Or hunting. Or doing things that are destructive to our world, like driving or flying. Or eating vegetables that are harvested by underpaid workers exposed to pesticides shipped thousands of miles across continents. We smoosh spiders in our house. We put cow’s milk in our coffee that was from a cow kept in a confined, industrial space her whole life until she stops producing enough and then gets sent off to slaughter. We throw things in the landfill that take up precious space, seeping chemicals into our water. And so on. For me, I see eating and killing animals as part of a collection of the ways that we do harm in the world and I claim a place in that complex of ways that we harm.

This said, I think there is a difference between acknowledging systems of harm and violence in which we all take and celebrating it. I have to admit as I see people I admire and care about post pictures of small children with freshly shot animals, or excited posts about children killing their first turkey or deer, my heart aches. Because, I think when we kill animals and say “This is neat and for children,” we normalize harming others needlessly. We do not need meat to be healthy, or if you don’t buy that (even though I do), at the very least, we need much less of it. So even if you think we need it, it is one thing to say, “We think that this is essential to health and yet we still regret that we must kill beings who suffer in order to live as we think we need to,” and it is another thing to say, “This is a way to connect to nature! There is a rush. This is something to be proud of. This is normal. This is fine. This is nothing to weep at.”

Because when we learn that we should not weep at the suffering of animals by our own hands, it cannot stop there. We learn not to weep at the suffering of others in our own hands. Child abuse and bullying appears to be epidemic in the United States. We run around, baffled, developing programs to stop bullying and calling, most often in vain, for people to stop abusing children. We say that we need more social workers. Stricter laws. More oversight. But, what I say, is that when violence in normalized – when harming other beings who suffer and feel is considered not only to be essential for survival but also a sport, also fun, also a rite of passage, also fun, also something to be proud of, then is it any wonder that it becomes more possible to harm each other without feeling as though it is all that bad? Or, even if we know something is bad, this often does not free us from doing these things, as we are part of systems of violence and deeply influenced by formative moral experiences. Hurting others gets normalized. When we shoot animals. When we eat meat. When we eat our vegetables grown by underpaid workers who die early from cancer because of such hard work and pesticides and no health care. The question for me is how we can, with the very love and care that we long for in the world, denormalize the suffering that is part of the fabric of how most U.S. Americans live.

I am so very far from perfect. I know that so many of the ways that I live causes harm to other beings who suffer. Thus, I think vegetarians who take some sort of dramatic moral high ground do not serve their causes well. At the same time, I do think it would be good to examine more closely how our normalized practices of violence might impact the world in which we live and the world that we create. Annie Dillard says that the way we spend our days, is the way that we spend our lives. I’m not sure that we are able to separate what we do for sport and fun and what we eat for dinner from the larger swath of how we are in the world. I suppose this leads me to want to think of my life not in some sort of moral absolutist terms, but in terms of formation and harm reduction. Perhaps the more we reduce harm and become aware of and face the harm we do, the more we might build on that. Maybe this means walking more. Planting a garden. Buying from a local farmer. Eating less meat. Not giving our children guns. Not yelling at our children. Not spanking them. Pretty much, trying to live in a way that treats others who can suffer the way we would like to be treated if we were them. I know it sounds a little cliched, but it does seem to make sense that in both direct (shooting a deer) and indirect (buying produce from a source that causes workers harm) we should try to treat others how we would want to be treated. For me, humans are an important part of this, but I would say that suffering is a central factor which also includes non-human animals. Surely we should treat our pets with care and reduce suffering and we can relate to why we might wish to do that. It seems like we might wish to extend that to other animals who can suffer too.

And as both a call and a prayer I say to myself – less harm, I’m sorry, less harm, and I’m sorry, calling myself to do less harm while also knowing that I cannot stop it.

It may be that churches and people faith might take a similar position, acknowledging the ways we are products of a broken world, but also acknowledging and celebrating the ways that we can take small steps toward something different.

May it be so.


A Life Lived Well

October 22, 2012

When I was in Kindergarten, I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt like I was not moving through my letter books fast enough. The other children were slow to learn the ABCs and I already knew them and we needed to move it along. I dropped out of Girl Scouts in third grade because I got so preoccupied with getting as.many.badges.as.possible as fast as possible that I could not enjoy it. Or get anything out of it.

It goes on. In seventh grade, it was getting to be the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. As fast as possible. And making them better. Fast. By high school, it was starting to take college classes. Filling out the resume for college. After a full scholarship to my undergraduate school, it was getting more majors. And more awards. So I could go to the best graduate school. After getting into a graduate program at Harvard, it was getting into the doctoral program at Harvard. Then passing exams. With distinction. Then writing a dissertation. I wouldn’t just be spiritual or religious or involved in my church, I would be ordained. Soon it was getting a job. After getting a tenure track job, the big concern has been the getting a book contract. And being the.best.professor possible. I want my students to love learning, love the class, love me, become good citizens, become good thinkers. Somewhere in there: Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.

I am tired. If I stop to think about what a good life looks like, I hardly know. When I am with my son, who I want more time with, I am worried about when I can clean the house. Or get back to grading. As the trees change and the air is perfect, I look out the window from Starbucks with my overly sweet drink and write more comments on the papers that my students will probably never read. As I apply for grants and funding, my screen blurs together and I wonder what I am doing. I pour over our budget and wonder how we can make what we do and still come up short at the end of every month. What are we doing all of this for if not to be able to pay our bills and have a good, peaceful life, right? A PEACEFUL LIFE, goddammit.

We are caught in a hologram. I feel caught in it, but there is no red pill, no way to step out of it, to snap out of it and I think about what I should do to get out – meditate, go to yoga, take time to be present, make better plans, manage time better, get therapy, read more books or better books, and I just add these things onto my to do list and run from meeting to class to meeting, somehow feeling good about myself as I ease the pain with the balm of doing.

I tell my students there are few important easy choices in our lives – as individuals, as citizens. And there may not even be a choice. We are formed over time and our brains develop little pathways and we do not undo this in a day or a night or by getting saved or by making definitive decisions that we really mean this time. We undo or redo this slowly, the way that we have been done up by our universe. Moment by moment. Dragging ourselves back from the chaos into the memory of what we all long for, aware of the cliche and the unoriginality of our desires.

These things are not changed by quotes we tape to our computer screen or put on our pinterest wall, we know, as we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.

Perhaps this is my draw to God and grace. The idea that I am loved and ok always. From before time and until after time. No matter what I do. I want to believe it, but like the alcoholic who just has one more drink, and feels that emptiness and pain melting away, I have one more good line on my resume. One more grant or book or job or success. And I am good, right? Doing the right things. We are doing the right things, right?


Ever considering giving up/reducing meat? Great article to think it through.

February 23, 2010

I thought this is one of the best article on vegetarian questions/issues in a good while. I love how chill he is, how not arrogant.
Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals at The Atlantic

Hat tip to CT for sharing the link (on the blog of Rev. Scott Wells where he blogs Lent, Google, Animals, and Meat).


On The Suffering of Others

January 13, 2010

There has been another terrible “natural” disaster in Haiti. My stomach dropped as I looked through the pictures in the New York Times. And then I got ready to go back to my work. I thought for a second, “What can I do for these people who hurt, who have a little boy just like mine who cries and is hurt?” I thought for a second about sending a donation online, but wondered what my $25 dollars would do. It was more about easing my conscience than the suffering of the people in Haiti. I mean, let’s be real here, things in Haiti were horrendous and horrible and breathtakingly hard and sad before this damn earthquake. I suppose when something is on the front page of the newspaper we just think about it a little more, for a second or two, or maybe a little throughout the day, before we go back to our own lives that are filled with things like getting our house clean, keeping up with email and studying for our general exams.

Sometimes I tell my partner that I think we talk about the suffering in the world and how awful it is and how inadequate our response to it is more just to somehow tell ourselves that we are doing something by being aware of it – aware of our great indulgence living in a house bigger than we need, getting organic fruit at Whole Foods for our little one and spending as much on surgery for our kitty Grace than many families in the world make in the whole year. As if we are somehow one tiny ethical step ahead of those who do all of this without thinking or reflection or people who don’t feel as bad as we do about it.

I often tell myself there is no good answer to this, but I wonder in the back of my mind if there really is a good answer and I just don’t really want to do it. I mean, it seems like the good answer would be to live with what we need – decent food, decent shelter, warmth, the transportation we need to get to our decent jobs – and then spend the rest of our time and money working to change the savage injustices that we see on the front page of the newspapers, or, too often, as a side story in the back of a newspaper or a completely unknown story never told. I guess that would be the good answer. But instead, we resign ourselves (sophisticated resignation, as Forrest Church says) to the fact that we just sort of don’t really want to do that and even though such dedication is needed to help address the profound and deep suffering in our world, we would rather live a more comfortable life in our nice warm house, washed in the privileged of where we were born.

And so it goes. Another earthquake. More pictures of misery, and hurt – not far-away hurt of other people that must somehow not be like our own deep hurt – but real hurt that is just as deep and just as acute and terrible as I would feel if it was my sweet boy sick, without shelter, without the food he needs. I remember when it first occurred to me that the pictures of the children with the swollen bellies were not just images flashed on the screen to get us to send money, but they were actually like me – with real lives and real suffering just like my own. It is so easy to see the suffering of others and take a step away from it and get back to what we feel like we must do – live our lives, do the dishes, pick the boy up from daycare – because really – I mean what else could be expected of us? I mean, we can’t GIVE UP OUR LIFE for all these injustices, right? And although I have this funny relationship with Christianity, and pretty much don’t think of it as my spiritual home, I remember the idea of giving up our life to the call that Jesus made to be with the poor and oppressed and give our enemies the shirt off our back and the idea of taking up our own cross and it speaks to me. Not a call to attend another social action committee meeting, but the call to live a radical life of giving and love when it is really really hard – not part-time, not on the weekends, but a life that gets at the very heart of what I know I say I want – a just world.

But instead I write a blog post on it and then get back to writing my paper which is due January 28th.


What are we to do?

May 7, 2009

My partner is German, and he and his generation dealt with the question of what to say to their parents and grandparents who knew what was happening during the war, but didn’t do anything. How to understand that? What to do with that?

What are we to do with this?

In all, 98 detainees have died while in U.S. hands, with 34 identified as homicides, at least eight of which were tortured to death….

I fear that these numbers are too low, but even if they are exaggerated, one death by torture is too much. How will I respond to my little one, who sleeps on my chest as I write this, when he grows up and asks if I knew of the torture my country was committing? When he asks me what I did? Blogging and sermon-giving and voting and going to a protest and praying all feel woefully inadequate, yet it is about all I can think of. I am so disappointed with my country of citizenship and residence. I have never identified strongly with my country, yet I don’t think that somehow relieves me of guilt by association when terrible things are done by the U.S. government.

I knew of so many bad things in our past… yet somehow for me, systematic torture during my lifetime seems so clear… so obvious… so much like something that I feel we should be able to stop. If this is okay, what is not okay? If this doesn’t provoke outrage… and legal action agianst those responsible, what possibly could?

I find myself increasingly questioning what a democracy is. At what point is a country no longer a democracy? How many human rights and international laws must be violated before a country gives up the right to claim noble values and good intentions and such things as rule of law? I know this is not a well-thought out or well-articulated post. Mostly I just feel despair and sickness and a deep sadness about this. I wanted this nation to do better. To live up to its best self instead of confirming the worst.


Hating Conflict Too Much

January 6, 2009

When I was a little girl and teenager, I fancied myself tough, willing to tell you what you need to know. Somehow in my mind, this was what it meant to be smart or good or the best. Or something.

My dad, on the other hand, would rather eat live mice than confront someone. I remember a particularly dramatic incident when McDonald’s forgot the ketchup for my french fries and my dad thought we should just make do and I thought we needed to DEMAND our ketchup.

But around about age 17, I started to understand where he was coming from. It was often easier and more practical just to agree with someone, or follow the stupid rule than to argue and point out the rule’s stupidity. In a sense, it was a humbling of my own heart. Maybe I don’t have all the answers. Also, I am sure it was part of me being chronically ill for many years – learning how to conserve my energy for the most important things. All sorts of things.

But, it has gotten out of hand. I realize this now. I have known it. It is why I sit in my apartment in Somerville right now at 2:21 a.m. with a heater that doesn’t work correctly, costing us HUNDREDS of dollars each month, yet is not fixed because after several very difficult encounters with the landlords, it has just seemed easier to pay an OUTRAGEOUS heating bill rather than go to court or knock on their door and harass them or to hire a lawyer or whatever it would take to get it fixed. And, the reason I am up at this hour is because our neighbors below us are listening to music on their new stereo drunkenly singing along, and interspersing the sing-alongs with stories that use the word fuck way more than Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone put together. The music is loud enough and has gone on long enough and it is late enough and this sort of thing is frequent enough that it would really be very reasonable to go down and politely ask them to turn the music down. Or the more cowardly version of writing a letter kindly requesting that they don’t play music loudly after midnight.

Of course, they have habitually stolen our mail until we got a P.O. Box (no we did not confront them on this either) and seem capable of at least minor violence and property damage, so maybe not confronting them is the wiser thing.

Still. It is one thing to be kind, gentle, flexible, and easy going.

It is another to put up with very unreasonable behavior over a long period of time.

But the threat of confrontation with really nasty people just seems not worth it. Finding the right balance for all of this is hard.

And I just thought I would write this because I am up anyway and contemplating what I should do about this.

At least they aren’t singing along with the songs as loudly now. Maybe soon they will sleep.

Or not (she writes as the bass is turned up and the transition is made from Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock’s duet to Eminem).

I can’t wait to move to the country. Where there are crickets. And no neighbors below you.

Amen and goodnight.


Thought for the New Year

December 31, 2008

From the essay “Do Not Lose Heart”, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by persevering on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails….

We are needed, that is all we can know….

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.  Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.  It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.  What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing…

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.  Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.  The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire.  To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both, are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.  Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.  If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

And, I believe, this is all we can do. What we can. Our best. Pushing ourselves to love when it is hard, to be kind, to try to be just, to speak up when we feel called. And to encourage each other in this, with understanding and strength.

On to 2009.

Much peace,
Elizabeth


What to Do When You Can’t Save the World

July 23, 2008

A lot of my thoughts and prayers and worries (and my conversations with my partner) deal with the state of our world and what can be done about it. My partner is a walking encyclopedia of news and statistics, so we are never short on increases in carbon emissions, poverty, and the big machine of capitalismandconsumption that does some good, but does, it seems, much more not-good.

I, on the other hand, am not good at remembering statistics, except that they are typically overwhelmingly bad. I remember senses of things more than concrete information. Essences and generalities.

When I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?

In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that progressive work – religiously, politically, social justice wise, racism and sexism wise, etc. – is about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world. We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.

We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.

We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.

People in our congregations and those to whom we minister will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.

It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snails pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Social justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.

That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.

Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways.  Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.

This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.

How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?

I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.

Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Tons of people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people

A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.

Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because to everyone their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.

Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need my harm-mitigation work.

Just some thoughts on stuff I think about a lot.

E


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