Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,
You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.
Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.
Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.
Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.
What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become
but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.
Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.
Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”
“Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.”—Oscar Wilde
In the streets of my Delhi neighborhood, workers are building new apartments. Women carry sand on their heads. Bricks are stacked on the walkway. Yesterday the populous celebrated Republic Day, and I was reading Pamela Timms’ book, Korma Kheer & Kismet, the chapter titled “Independence Day in Sadar Bazar” where she describes the civic protests of 2011 where social activist, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, began a hunger strike in protest of government corruption. Concerned with the amount of interest Hazare stirred up in the populace, prime minister of the time, Manmohan Singh responded, ‘”Corruption manifests itself in many forms. Funds meant for schemes for the welfare of the common man end up in the pocket of government officials. In some other instances, government discretion is used to favor a selected few. There are also cases where government contracts are wrongfully awarded to the wrong people. We cannot let such activities continue unchecked.”’ Hazare’s hunger strike began the day after the prime minister made the statement, reports Timms, and goes on to describe some of the corruptions in the system—food vendors paying as much as a quarter of their salaries to the police to be able to stay open, and rickshaw drivers paying as much as 20% of their salaries to police to prevent their tires from being slashed, families having to pay bribe money to secure a place for their child at school. (p. 55) (You can read an overview of large-scale corruption in India here if you wish.)
It’s no surprise that corruption is present not only in India. It is a worldwide problem in both businesses, see a list here of top business corruption cases, and governments. Take a look at the thematic map from Transparency International here, to see a visual representation of corruption levels in countries across the world. Justice doesn’t prevail. In many cases, it’s simply the way the world functions where people live, and the everyday person, if he or she wants to function in society, doesn’t have a lot of choice about it.
With corruption and misuse of power so widespread, an enormous percentage of people in the world are pawns to those who hold the power. How do people manage? How do people—any of us and all of us—caught in such systems go on living with good conscience? I remember listening to Garth Lenz describing on his TED Talk about the effects of mining for oil in Canada’s tar sands had on the native people of the area. Parents in that area are caught in the dilemma of needing to feed their children, yet the toxins in the river are causing cancers at the rate of 10 times what it is in other parts of Canada. Because it’s very costly to fly in all the food a person needs in order eat, the aboriginal people are forced to eat the food “..as a parent, I just can’t imagine what that does to your soul. And that’s what we’re doing,” says Lenz. (transcript available here.) Certainly there were people during the time of Spain’s inquisition, in Nazi Germany and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia who didn’t agree with the government’s position but felt compelled to go along with the crowd mentality for fear of their own lives and those of their children’s. Certainly, there are people today in our own institutions who disagree with the use of power and yet are afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their jobs and the livelihood for their families. Not everyone can just move on or move out to a new situation, new job, new country, new life, and even if that were possible, where might one live or work where corruption was not part of the way of life? We have to learn to live in a fallen world.
I’m reminded of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “I Open a Box,” in her book, Ancestor’s Song, where she describes her Italian immigrant mother’s doctor coming to her New Jersey tenement to assist her in the delivery of her baby. He arrives late, and Gillan’s mother has already given birth, cut the umbilical cord, and washed her child. When the doctor finally arrives, he doesn’t even enter the room. Instead, he distances himself from the situation.
“He washed his hands, wiped
them on one of the rough linen towels
I brought from Italy, stood in the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
“Oh, well,” my mother said, “I think
he was afraid of catching it.”
“Catching what?” I asked.
“Poverty,” she said.
Poverty is often perceived by wealthier countries as something out there over there, not mine not related to one’s own life. Like the doctor at the door, people want to distance themselves from the poor, not realizing their lives are connected. We may want to stand at the door like the doctor of this poem observing a world we don’t want to be a part of. We may think we can wash our hands, bid others well and walk away, and disconnect ourselves from what we don’t want and live in a different neighborhood. But our lives are intertwined. One example: A few years back, students in my speech class debated whether the lithium beneath Bolivia’s salt flats should be mined. The area is of tremendous beauty yet the area holds more than half the world’s lithium. Lithium is a lightweight metal used in powering our high tech products—iPhones, iPods, and other handheld devices. Now, as the world searches for alternative energy and looks towards ways to store electricity in batteries in order to meet more of our needs, including the use of batteries for electric vehicles, the need for lithium grows in greater and greater demand.
Dan McDougal, in his article on Mail Online “In search of Lithium: The battle for the third element” quotes a lithium-ion battery producer, Mary Ann Wright of Johnson Controls-Saft, ‘Since a vehicle battery requires 100 times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.’“ There’s not enough lithium to power the world’s 900 million vehicles, however, McDougal observes. Bolivia has significantly large amounts of the needed lithium to produce the batteries for the growing electric car industry, an industry that most people perceive as a green technology. Mc Dougal reports that according to “William Tahil, research director with technology consultancy Meridian International Research, ‘to make just 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate – or six times the current global production annually.” To continue, McDougal goes on to report that “The US Geological Survey claims at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted in Salar De Uyuni, while another report puts it as high as nine million tons.”’ Bolivia is a very poor country. Child workers are exploited, but children work to help their families. While mining the mineral would bring needed jobs and money into the country, a problem is that mining the mineral requires an abundance of water, and water is a rare commodity in Bolivia’s high desert. Bolivia has experienced exploitation by outsiders before in the tin and silver mining industries. An overuse of water could significantly affect the country and its people in numerous ways—making it difficult to have enough water for daily use, as well as for farming. Additionally, mining pollutes water with toxins as well. McDougal asks his readers “Is the world’s need for a green solution to transport worth the destruction of this unique environment and way of life that it lives on?”
Transportation is necessary. Our society is structured in such a way that few of us can walk to work. We need some way of getting to work. We want to do that in the least harmful way to the environment and others. As a result, in the desire to move away from our dependence on oil, many people are looking toward buying an electric car. These same people may be unaware that in doing so they are connected to moral dilemmas of another sort. We are all part of the greater web of being.
Parker Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach, which I’m currently reading, talks about the biologist Barbara McClintock, who was given the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work that changed our understanding of genetics. Prior to her work, people thought of genes as separate things, not in connection to the environment they were a part of. Palmer explains that McClintock’s interviewer who wrote her biography, Fox Keller, “wanted to know, ‘What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?’ McClintock’s answer, Keller tells us, is simple: “Over and over again she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ the openness to ‘let it come to you.’ Above all, one must have ‘a feeling for the organism.’” We co-create our world. We can’t stand at the door. The burden of the cost of anything is born by all eventually. As Palmer goes on to say, “Modern knowledge has allowed us to manipulate the world but not to control its fate (to say nothing of our own), a fact that becomes more clear each day as the ecosystem dies and our human systems fail.” (p. 57) Perhaps, then one important way of living inside of corrupt systems and move ourselves and society toward greater wholeness is to do what we can with those around us to build and restore relationships constructively. Some things or many things may not be in our power. But some things will. We can learn to listen closely to the interrelationships of people and things so we gain a greater connection to life. With this understanding, we can better comprehend what actions will create harmony both with others and with nature.
Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty can save the world.” While it may not appear to be a solution to growing environmental and social concerns, the idea deserves a closer look. What connection does beauty have in showing us a way through our dilemmas of how to live in unjust social systems? The New York Times “Books” section, published in 1987 includes an excerpt from Richard Ellman’s essay “Oscar Wilde.” Ellman relates the story of Oscar Wilde coming to New York City in 1882. “Beauty is nearer to most of us than we are aware,” Wilde explained talking to reporters. One of the reporters wanted to know if a nearby grain elevator was beautiful. Earlier in the conversation, Wilde had said, ‘I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that.” As reporters continued probing, Wilde explained further his ideas about beauty. ”’It’s a wide field which has no limit, and all definitions are unsatisfactory. Some people might search and not find anything. But the search, if carried on according to right laws, would constitute estheticism. They would find happiness in striving, even in despair of ever finding what they sought. The renaissance of beauty is not to be hoped for without strife internal and external.” ”Where then is this movement to end?” ”There is no end to it; it will go on forever, just as it had no beginning. I have used the word renaissance to show that it is no new thing with me. It has always existed. As time goes on the men and the forms of expression may change, but the principle will remain. Man is hungry for beauty. . . . There is a void; nature will fill it. The ridicule which esthetes have been subjected to is the only way of blind unhappy souls who cannot find the way to beauty.”’ Creating a world of beauty is creating the ideal world. Creating a heaven, so to speak. To do so will take great effort. But people are hungry for it, as Wilde says. We are hungry for beauty, and that hunger connects to the desire for a world without corruption. Without corruption, beauty has a better chance of thriving.
Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, speaks on her Harvard Thinks Big, “Beauty as a Call to Justice” about how experiences of beauty help to move humans toward justice. When we experience the beautiful, we are pulled out of our everyday way of interacting with our surroundings. We stand still. We are transfixed, she explains. In those moments, beauty pours into us an awareness of the “surfeit of aliveness.” It takes us out of ourselves, and connects us with a larger reality. Scarry makes the case that this experience of beauty helps lead us to love what we see and to want to care for it and have a relationship with it.
I don’t know if its true as Keats said in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” but I do believe we need to have a much deeper knowing of beauty than we currently hold. There is a relationship between our loss of beauty in many of our urban environments, a loss resulting from our pragmatic values that relegates beauty to the bottom realms, and efficiency to the higher realms of priority. When I speak of beauty, I’m not talking about beauty in the decorative or commercial sense. I’m speaking of the beauty such as nature gives us in a star strewn sky or a valley sweeping down in green fields from stoney mountain peaks. I’m speaking of the beauty Scarry described above—that stops us short, that overwhelms, and then lifts us out of ourselves. Is our culture’s pragmatic love of efficiency causing us to structure society in such a way that it’s actually challenging to make deep connections with others? We have connection to people on Facebook, but does the minimalistic communication that exists there nurture deep conversation and relationship? I doubt it. Could it also be true that our lack of seeing ourselves as connected to the beauty of the Bolivian salt flats and the lives of Bolivian miners as we pursue our technological development (and other similar realities) is part of the reason corruption continues to thrive? Do people act in ugly ways because they live in a world where connection to the natural world is broken? In glimpses of beauty, we can see the world we want to belong to, a world of balance and wholeness, and are drawn to it. If we gave beauty a place of respect and honor in our cultures, possibly we would treat the world with more respect. If we developed more of a relationship with those around us and with the natural world, wouldn’t we understand our connection to the world and realize more fully the effects of our choices? Is our collective loss of beauty causing us to lose our souls?
I never used to understand the Jesus prayer—the ancient prayer that says, “Have mercy on me.” I felt it seemed too focused on the negative and I already struggle to move beyond my failures. But as I see myself more and more intertwined with the existence of all that is, I see the value of this prayer. What the world is or isn’t, isn’t all up to me, but I’m also a part of all that is. How do we live in a corrupt world and yet continue to grow toward wholeness? The problems are all much bigger than me but mercy is extended. “For the Beauty of the Earth” is an old song that carries with it the idea of giving praise for the world around us and to the skies. Perhaps the ongoing practice of noticing and valuing beauty in the world, as the words of this song illustrate, acts to create a greater awareness of our interconnectivity. It’s worth trying.
One of the especially valuable aspects of creative work—of art and literature, of writing—is the way it nurtures the inner life. The artist must look very carefully at whatever she or he is drawing in order to see it and how it functions in relationship to itself and to the world it inhabits. In writing, an author must delve inside the subject with imagination in order to understand the subject and the interrelationship of the subject to oneself and the world. To write or to do art is to cultivate beauty. It is a way to reconnect to the world, is a way of making whole again as telling our story is a way of making us whole again. The flourishing of this kind of empathetic understanding that comes through our interaction with literature and the arts is important to not only the continuance of the world, but the continuance of a world that is good to live in.
Wherever we are, we can work with others to create greater wholeness. If we are going to change at all, it will be a step-by-step movement toward wholeness. In the mean time, we can pray as we walk, “have mercy,” and, by grace, we will continue on.