Saturday, February 13, 2010

the root of the question

I’m coming out of my January funk and enjoying the lengthening days. I’m still trying to figure out how to engage other people in a way that makes sense. Often even in groups of people trying to address the same concern I seem to be asking questions at a different level.

Last month I heard that the director of a nearby early learning center was seeking help with reading etc. for students, and I thought perhaps we could do that; but when I inquired further I learned that she wanted auxiliary homework help. I do know that the kids have to get through their homework in order to avoid trouble at school. But when I’ve tutored other kids I’ve found that the work seems to be scattered, remote from the actual lives and interests of the children, and often several levels beyond their comprehension. What I’m interested in is stepping back and working on the foundations of understanding math and language. The learning center kids will be coming out to the farm to explore in the woods and help make birdhouses come spring; until then we don’t seem to have projects in common.

After my last blog post about challenges in my Stop and Think! counter-recruiting visits to the high school, a Friend wrote to suggest that students would respond better if I dressed up in a way that made it clear that I was successful. I had to stop and think about why this didn’t seem right. I don’t own the right clothes, and I’m not a ‘success’ in the usual way; I don’t have a degree, a job title, a salary, a retirement plan. More basically, my message to the students isn’t “Avoid the military and you can be a success.” I don’t think this is necessarily true. Our economic system is configured in a way that requires a large number of ‘losers’ to do the unprofessional but necessary work that feeds, clothes and houses the ‘successful’. And many of the kids at the local school are starting at a disadvantage; that’s why the recruiters spend so much time at the school and appeal to so many students.
Furthermore, I look at ‘successful’ people of all ages and am not convinced that their success translates to a meaningful, integrated and satisfying life, or even to freedom from fear. Our economically privileged guests still worry aloud about not having enough, or about losing what they have; and they speak of loneliness, of lacking time for prayer, of feeling trapped in work that pays their bills but doesn’t satisfy their souls. So what I want to say to the students, and to all our guests, is “Don’t listen to the people who try to sell you safety, happiness, importance. Nobody’s safe, except in the sense that we are all in God’s hands. You can find sufficiency, and sometimes happiness, without a lot of money. You are already important; you are a living soul. Your life matters. You have real and important choices about how to use it. Make them with your eyes open.”

At the end of January I took part in the first session of a group study/reflection/action course on Jubilee. As most of you probably know, the Mosaic law designated every 49th year as the Year of Jubilee when debts were to be forgiven, slaves freed and land restored to the families who originally worked it. It was also one of the Sabbath years, which were to occur every 7th year, when the land was to be left fallow and the people to trust that God would provide the food that they needed. We seek to live more fully into the values of the Jubilee—economic justice, forgiveness, liberation, trust in God and abandonment of illusory human security—in the context of the work to which we have been called.
For several of the other course participants this work is tied to the attempt to bring about large-scale political change—ending war or torture, limiting corporate influence in politics, strengthening environmental protection etc. I admire this work. I can’t imagine doing it myself. I see the abuses that they wish to correct, but it seems to me that these abuses are not isolated policies but the natural result of the system by which we live. And I don’t know how to change this system meaningfully on a large scale. I only know how to meet people one by one and invite them into a space where they can examine their lives, decide what matters to them and find ways to live accordingly.
It’s not a matter of preaching at people, but of offering an example and a space. We’re sometimes amazed at what happens when we offer these things. A migrant worker decides to go home, plant a garden, keep goats, and buy less so that he is able to live at home and be with his children instead of traveling to this country and taking abuse and long separation from his family in order to send home money that would enable them to have an American lifestyle. A college student changes from a major that seemed lucrative to one that allows him to do work he loves. A seeker stops frantically trying to do more Good Works and decides to take some significant time for prayer.
Sometimes what we offer doesn’t make sense to our guests, and there is frustration and loneliness on both sides. Often I look at the needs around us and realize how painfully inadequate our offerings are. Then I need to remind myself that the results of our work aren’t up to me. All I can do is stay faithful and stay open. The rest is in God’s hands. And also in the hands of the people who do the good work that I am not clear to do.


Lu Harper said...

Yes you are asking questions at a different level, and yes you are offering an example and a space. That is your ministry. Thee is being faithful. Blessings.

Karen said...

"successful"? What does that even mean? To me, it means being psychologically healthy, able to cope well with life, generally content and able to find happiness in most situations. How do you dress to signal that?

forrest said...

Your migrant worker probably isn't risking his life to come to this country "to have an American lifestyle;" usually he's coming because the subsistence economy (which his family could previously survive in) has been deliberately undermined via NAFTA etc to the point where the family back home probably needs those dollars! With more trust in God, they might have found a better way to handle the situation--but we can't know that!-- Why did the Israelites need that inconvenient detour to Egypt?

But in a larger sense... Yes, if we'd all had a deeper trust in the first place, I expect we could have bypassed all the nasty conditions and misbehaviors that people mistake for "how things have to be."

Aside from that: a Sufi quote I think you'll like: "Sufic and other spiritual practices do not bring Grace. For in truth, Grace is always there. Every human soul is always under grace but does not know it; therefore the practices." ['Sufi Sam' Lewis]

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thanks all!

Karen, next time people talk to me about how to groom people for success I'll try to remember to ask them to define what they mean.

Forrest, I take your point. We've had migrant guests who came because their home economy was so devastated that they couldn't both feed their families and buy shoes for their children. We've had others who couldn't earn enough at home to buy land. But we've also had one who said he came so he could earn enough to buy buy Nike shoes and brand-name clothes so nobody would laugh at him, and some who said they could earn, grow or make what they needed at home, but came here drawn by the sense that to be really successful, manly, happy, worthwhile, they needed to earn enough to have an "American' lifestyle (as seen on TV....) and that they were reconsidering whether they wanted to give their children more stuff or more time.
I definitely agree that we need to stop flooding the markets of other countries with our subsidized exports, speculating in their currencies and otherwise wreaking havoc with them. Even when we don't, some of our migrant guests could make choices that made them freer. It seems to me that both things are true and important--the system needs to be changed, which requires a substantial change in the lives of the privileged; and, even those who aren't privileged still have some real and important choices to make. Neither one negates the other.
The Sufi quote is lovely.