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.


How Much is Enough? Sustainability, Justice, and the Economy

February 15, 2009

This is a question I return to over and over again in my life and on this blog and my answer never seems that helpful. I guess I like to just keep thinking about it and trying new approaches which is better than completely giving up.

First, I want to be clear that this is a pretty darn privileged post. I know that, for a lot of people, any discussion of where to spend money is about whether to pay for medicine or food. Or how to pay for food. Or how to pay rent. The reality is, that I wish I was someone who would say, “You know what? Until other people don’t have to worry about how to eat or how to pay for life-saving medical treatment, I am only going to buy what I really need to survive and give the rest to more important causes.” But I am not saying that. I might someday. I wish I would. But I am simply not ready to make that sort of sacrifice – of, let’s be honest, my own comfort – for what I think is the right thing to do. This is about how to live more simply, how to better take into account issues of sustainability, justice, and the current economic crisis for people who are not dealing with acute and/or traumatic economic situations.

Given this – that I am not going to live ultra-simply – I still would like to live more simply and more sustainably, better taking into account how my consumption habits impact me, the world, and the values that are important to me (justice, equality, survival of our planet, etc.).

This is for three reasons: first, because it seems preferable to acquire less stuff for environmental reasons; second, because it seems to me that there are spiritual and personal benefits to having less stuff and depending less on acquiring things to make me feel better/more fulfilled; and three, because the economy sucks, I worry about our finances and job stability, and we really need to be saving money.

So how much stuff is enough to have? When it comes to buying stuff and having space (in your home, which costs money and uses resources) and spending money – what is being normal and reasonable, what is being conscientious, what is being extravagant?

With the economic situation and our recent move, I have returned to these questions more lately and at least until I am preoccupied with other things (baby to arrive soon), I hope to blog on it more.

I ran across a blog (I forget how) Enough which is:

a space for conversations about how a commitment to wealth redistribution plays out in our lives: how we decide what to have, what to keep, what to give away; how we work together to build sustainable grassroots movements; how we challenge capitalism in daily, revolutionary ways.

I haven’t read a lot of the blog yet. I’m pretty sure they are more radical than me. I think I am not so much into challenging capitalism (maybe I am into challenging capitalism as it currently is practiced/carried out, but not in general). But the rest of the point of the blog – thinking about what to have, what to keep, how we work together to build sustainable grassroots movements related to justice and equality…. that sort of thing is what I am interested in.

So this post is getting long. I think I will stop here, and say that this is the introduction to my How Much Is Enough? series which, at the very minimum, will include a post on How Much is Enough? A Question of Faith, How Much is Enough? Moving Edition, How Much is Enough? Baby Edition, and How Much Is Enough? Buying Green Edition. I welcome links in the comments to blogs, posts and websites that deal with these issues from any of the three (obviously intertwined) lenses that I’m using to look at this: the sustainability perspective, the justice perspective, and the personal economic perspective.

More soon!

p.s. Other posts I have done on this in the past:

Privilege, Justice and Sustainability Thoughts how to try to eat more sustainably without getting on our high horses, on the interconnectedness of justice issues (including the issue of food).

Book Review for The Simple Living Guide

Can Polyester Save the World? Part of the series of posts on my (failed) attempt not to buy new clothes for a year.

May a Curse Fall on the House of Pottery Barn: Trying to Want Less

No More Clothes in the New Year Thoughts on trying not to buy new clothes for a year. (Spoiler: It lasted five months.)

A Slower and Simpler Life (?)

I Could Keep Living Generally the Way I Wanted Does it actually take sacrifice to live a more sustainable life?


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


When YOUR Issue becomes THE Issue

September 25, 2008

Or: Vegetarianism and animal issues are not THE most pressing issue in the universe to everyone right now.

I am on the UFETA (Unitarian Universalist for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) listserve, and I think it is a great group. I love the dialogue. I love the passion. The care for suffering beings. I think it is an essential and prophetic voice in our faith community.

But a conversation has been going on recently that freaked me out a bit. I didn’t respond to the listserve because I think some people were voicing what it is I desired to say. But it brought up a good point that I wanted to raise here, more broadly.

The gist of the conversation on the listserve is that a UU church is going to have a chicken raising club or something – egg chickens, not eating chickens. I totally understand why people are not fond of this idea. What happens to the chickens when they quit laying? Where are you getting them from? A mean, terrible hatchery where the male chicks are killed an the laying hens are treated very very poorly? I do not think there is a problem in and of itself of eating the eggs of chickens that are your pets, but I am not so much a fan of raising chickens for eggs, especially if you are going to do away with them once they are no longer good egg producers.

But I digress. The point of this is that I think that it is quite reasonable to identify some ethical stumbling blocks with a church sponsored/orchestrated chicken raising club. But the thing that really freaked me out is the suggestion that those people who oppose this maybe should WITHHOLD THEIR PLEDGE because of this. Stop the presses! Can you IMAGE the mehem that would be caused in UU churches across the nation if people started withholding pledges when they really really disagreed with something?

I can think of five examples of the top of my head:

1. I think sweatshops are bad. Terrrrrrible. Violations of human rights. This is my cause. AND WE ORDERED OUR R.E. t-shirts from a company that uses sweatshop labor!!!!!!!! And the minister’s robe was MADE IN CHINA. And people are wearing sweatshop-made clothes to Sunday services. THIS MUST STOP. We must be consistant, people. We talk about human rights. Justice. Equality. And now the church is supporting sweatshop labor everywhere you look. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. And if it isn’t, I am withholding my pledge until I feel like it is being better addressed.

2. Climate change is coming fast, people! And our church is doing like a zillion things that make it worse. We are all driving to church. Where are the bikes? And the church is sponsoring events on Sunday evening so people drive to church on Sunday morning, drive home AND THEN DRIVE BACK. We keep this place 69 degrees in the winter, which is way too warm. We could very easily keep it at 67 and just bundle up. And, we need to get a new furnace which is more efficient, which costs only $10,000. I know this is a lot to ask BUT A LOT IS AT STAKE HERE PEOPLE. I am sorry, but I will have to withhold my pledge until this church takes more drastic steps to address this VERY SERIOUS problem.

Okay, so I won’t give five examples, but my point is that there are lots of very important issues that are probably not being well-addressed by our churches. We are not perfect. We are sometimes spoiled. We talk a lot about ethical stuff and do-gooding stuff but that is hard to do and, if we are honest with ourselves, it is easier to support things that we already agree with (we are for peace! gay marriage! sex-ed!)  than to do hard stuff we don’t want to do like stop buying sweatshop clothes or turn down the heat or drive less or whatever. I’ll never forget talking with one church I was involved in about socially responsible investing (which, let’s be honest, is not perfect but probably better than just haphazard investing in whatever). And they were like, “Yeah, well we tried that and the returns were really bad.” So, they invest in whatever, including nuclear energy, arms companies, oil companies and so on.

So, my point? Unless your parish committee has decided to open a nudie bar in the parish hall with the church income instead of having an R.E. program, with holding your pledge is really just not a reasonable approach to expressing your wants and desires in your congregation. Discussion – yes. Education – yes. Joining the parish committee/board – yes. Starting an ethical eating club – yes. But if our financial support of our churches starts becoming a “only if you attend satisfactorly to the issue I deem most important” then I say fulfill your pledge this year (since, you know, you did pledge it) and then find a different church that will meet your needs and expecations in every way. (Good luck with that one.) Because being part of a faith community can’t be so freaking conditional. It is a committement, in many ways, for better or worse. I understand that there are sometimes good, legit reasons to find a new church home or even to find a new faith home. But, I hope it would be bigger than issues. Because, when it comes down to it, we are all treading on this earth very heavily – doing harm – enmeshed in a system that is going to be a part of this system of harm. Our goal, I think, should be to lessen our harm, to love, listen, do better, try harder, and, in the end, know we aren’t going to be able to do it all and be humble that we are imperfect people stumbling along on this spinning planet together. And we are going to have to stick in it together – educating each other, learning from each other, listening to each other, being with each other – in order to get anywhere.


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.


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