Thursday, July 28, 2011

Responding to Suffering Far Away.

I've been thinking about the drought in the Horn of Africa: the drought is devastating and many people are dying of starvation. In the context of this kind of suffering, it feels petty to think about simplicity. Frugality, maybe, if it means rerouting our money towards alleviating poverty (whether that is effective is another conversation). But simplicity feels a bit of an obnoxious "life focus" when people are dying of starvation.

As you can guess, I'm going to argue that simplicity is not peripheral or obnoxious, even when there are acute global needs. I think it can be a response.

I count friends and colleagues who have stories that involve months of walking, lack of food, illness, giving birth under trees, and worse. Yet even as one friend reflects on the tragedies in her past, she describes the isolation and alienation she feels now, in the U.S. She's desperately trying to make ends meet in U.S. terms (college for kids, health care coverage for kids, supporting family still in refugee camps), and she's constantly feeling out-of-place in U.S. society. I don't think this sentiment reflects ingratitude. She's not complaining. I think it speaks to two things:

Firstly, our immediate circumstances are relative: even if we've been through incredibly bad times, relatively better times can still feel genuinely hard. Secondly, I think it shows that isolation in U.S. society is really, really painful. Being on a treadmill of work and money is something that's somehow happened to us, and it is powerful to think about building a different society right here, even in the midst of monumental suffering elsewhere.

This observation is not meant as an attempt to normalize or draw comparisons across totally different scales of suffering. It is also not a prodding for us to feel bad about feeling bad. Or to minimize the very real structures of work and school and insurance and debt that make it hard to do things differently. Simplicity is also not the answer to all the problems in the world.

Rather, I suggest that one response to suffering is to be radical-- sometimes simplistically so-- about choices we make in the day-to-day. Not out of guilt or to make our lives artificially perfect. But in recognition that some core things are true, and that in our own bumbling way, it is an act of love and grace to figure out how not to be caught up in creating or retaining wealth. I dream that maybe that will segway into tangible hands-on doing something I like for my community or one a little removed (see biltong factory), but in the space between those dreams and The Now, there's a time in which just doing life "well" matters.

It's hard when it feels like a choice between health insurance and full-time work or no insurance and a sense of insecurity. And there's pressure for full-time work to be self-actualizing and so on. All the more, those who say (in a genuine, non-creepy way) "we're so lucky, or we're so blessed" may be pioneers.

4 comments:

Jon Oney said...

Well Said...

Marilynhttp://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/ said...

I love that you commented on Communicating Across Boundaries so that I could find your blog! I have thought of you SO much and can't believe you're in South Africa! This is wonderful. This post is so well said - I would love to reblog on CAB. I look forward to being in touch and I see you have two kids - amazing grace! xox

Marilynhttp://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/ said...

I love that you commented on Communicating Across Boundaries so that I could find your blog! I have thought of you SO much and can't believe you're in South Africa! This is wonderful. This post is so well said - I would love to reblog on CAB. I look forward to being in touch and I see you have two kids - amazing grace! xox

Jo said...

Marilyn, I'm so glad to connect. I'd be honored for you to reblog. I was so excited to find your blog!