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.

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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.


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


The Age of Facebook Activism

September 22, 2008

I have seen all sorts of groups on facebook. Some make sense to me – like a student group that I am a part of has a facebook group. You can go and see who is in the group. Announcements about gatherings are made. Pictures from functions are posted. But I recently saw a group somewhere along the lines of End the Violence Against (Certain Minority) in (Certain Other Country). I am not listing the exact name because I don’t want to criticize this specific group at all. But my wondering is… what happens when you join this group? I have looked at it. There are not events. It seems like maybe updates can be sent to members about what is happening around this. There is no way to give money. No info on how to get more involved. There are all sorts of silly facebook groups (like Bring Back the Chicken Strips at Tommy’s Diner or I Love That Melon (The Group)) which make sense in that they are meant to be inside jokes or funny or silly.

But for serious things, I have a slightly nagging feeling that I don’t like to be able to join the facebook group about really serious social problems and then get the feeling that, yes, now I have done something for that cause. It reminds me of online petitions – I think by and large (there are probably exceptions) they are a waste of time and energy. So what if a zillion people forwarded something around to end human rights abuses in __________ or to end the war __________ or to ban foie gras in Montreal or whatever and they all signed their names? Who reads that? Who cares? (Please don’t provide me with an exception unless you know of 1000 meaningful exceptions to this.)

It isn’t that I am so much against facebook activism or online petitions in and of themselves, but rather that they provide people who take part with a sense that they are doing something useful when they are not. This raises two questions for me (for which I do not have answers). First, if a MILLION people join your group, does that make a difference? Does it matter or make some sort of statement to someone(s) that care if that many people will join a facebook group? My point being maybe if TONS of people join your group, it does somehow matter (?). And, second, If people couldn’t join facebook groups about their favorite causes, would people then go out and do something actually meaningful? That is, do gestures for a good cause that have no impact whatsoever actually reduce the level of action that does have some sort of impact?

An afterthought is that people on facebook (and online petitioners) feel so helpless to do anything (I mean, what could you do that would be that meaningful to end the war in Iraq or genocide in Darfur without committing a significant amount of time and energy?) that they just do facebook groups or online petitions to somehow address that feeling of helplessness – that is, the idea that people just don’t feel like they have the ability to commit real time an energy to one issue (or to the many issues that may tug at us) so facebook groups are sort of a stop gap measure…a way to represent care for an issue, to announce to friends that something matters to you, with no pretence that it actually does do any good.

Anyway, just some thoughts. No conclusions just yet.