I admit it. My thoughts have been very dark lately, especially in that particular time of honesty at the close of day when I am drifting to sleep. After the work for the day is done, the dinner dishes washed, the dog and cat cared for, the beauty routines attended to and it’s just me in the womb of my little room and the warm bed and the pillow, I find myself in bewildered grief about my own species. My mind and imagination travel to the many places where cruelty, savagery, torture, exploitation, and simply petty meanness ruin lives and torment souls. I ask God to help me understand even a tiny bit of it, the great WHY from one extremely fortunate woman on behalf of those who are suffering terrible conditions and punishments at every and any given moment. I know the reasons, sort of. The sociological reasons, the historical reasons, the biological reasons for aggression and hatred (with many thanks to new understanding of neurological damage that leads to sociopathy and sadism). “LEAVE THEM ALONE!” is the phrase that comes to mind again and again when I think of what humans are doing to other humans when they think they can get away with it. Leave them alone. Let them live. God almighty, why can we not just let everyone live? I suppose in my own way I am in the Advent season of waiting.
I posted that a couple of weeks ago on my PeaceBang Facebook page, and I’m going to write more about this now.
Last week I stopped for coffee at a groovy little surf shop/cafe the next town over. I got into a passionate discussion about the economy and income disparity with the two 20-something guys behind the counter, after mentioning that my church and I had worked very hard on the Raise Up Massachusetts minimum wage increase campaign.
One of the guys sad, with a thoughtful and respectful frown, that he was really against raising the minimum wage. I asked him to tell me how he was thinking about the issue, what might I be missing, what was the view from where he was standing in life. He responded with a story about friends in the restaurant industry suffering lay-offs and lost hours in New York after they raised the pay for restaurant servers there. We talked about all of the factors at play : greed, scarcity mentality, fear, and above it all, the scrambling among those of the working class for diminishing resources while those at the top — the people who move money around for a living — make more and more money.
We talked about those who do the work being made to feel that reality itself is somehow fixed — like there’s this limited amount of money available and they’re lucky to get any of it. It’s a crock, an illusion, a myth that has achieved the status of religious doctrine in our country: “You better be careful, because there’s just not that much here for all of us.”
There’s a TON of money in this country. It’s just being distributed in insane ways. I, a comfortably middle class woman with an education that is mostly paid for (and I fully expect to be finished paying for it in a few years), a homeowner, a tax payer, a health-insured lady with a car that works reliably, a manageable credit card debt (which I intend to retire by late summer of 2014) and a solid set of teeth (and dental coverage), am becoming increasingly horrified by the widening chasm between reasonable economic expectations and the actual economic reality. I feel most days that I am leading a charmed life, like I have somehow escaped a terrible monster called Pre-Poverty by sheer timing and good luck.
Pre-Poverty, like pre-diabetes or pre-cancerous cells, is the de facto condition for millions of young people who don’t even know they have it. As educational costs rise, housing costs soar, the cost of actual food that isn’t mostly sugar, salt or chemicals goes up, and job prospects hold steady at “meh” to “miserable,” the younger population can look forward to spending their most energetic years struggling to get a foot hold on independent living and worrying every month about how to pay their bills.
This is to say nothing of the segment of the population that is already historically mired in chronic pre-or actual poverty.
And you may have noticed, by the by, the chronic worry, shame and the sense that somehow you’re being screwed over by forces greater than you brings out the evil in human nature. Fear and privation trigger all kinds of reptilian brain behaviors. Addiction, violence, back-stabbing (literal or metaphorical), cheating, stealing, fight-or-flee. Constant, steady financial anxiety and worrying about the future exhausts inner resources and can trigger debilitating depression, the resigned neglect of self and others due to heart-brokenness and spirit-brokenness.
You wonder why Jesus talked so much about riches, money, wealth and treasure?
I never thought much about it, taking it as a given that every human being deserves to have their basic human needs for food, shelter and compassion met by the community. Now I think about it all the time –about how radical this sentiment is beginning to seem in my own society, where too many of us waste our time or have it wasted by petty infighting about small doctrinal matters, or by trying to out-clever each other on the stage of public thought and opinion.
Meanwhile, six year olds are being sold by the hour in shacks to sexual predators. Gotta make a buck somehow, right?
Someone left a baby alone in a soaked diaper and a cold apartment to go to work for $7.50 an hour. It’s going to cost that person $5.50 to get back and forth to their job.
An elder somewhere is discussing with his wife whether they should pick up the prescription or fix the flat tire on the car. They can’t do both.
A young man who is about two weeks’ savings from renting an apartment and who rides his bike to work (he has a good job), has been sleeping in a friend’s car. It’s a great plan, except for the fact that he has caught a cold that is going to turn into pneumonia. In two weeks he won’t have savings – he will have lost his job due to being out sick for so long.
My liberal religious tradition would say that these people, who are one bad turn of events away from sheer desperation, may do bad or criminal things because of that desperation. I agree. They certainly might. I certainly might do that if I was in their position.
What my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge is that on top of this level of human misery, fear, need and desperation is a pre-existing human condition called evil. Maybe it’s biological, maybe it’s existential – who knows? While a century and a half ago, liberal religionists were busy debating about whether humans were born with original sin or original grace, I feel that today we must argue with equal anger and passion for living conditions that make it possible for all humans to live into basic decency, whether or not we’re born with it. In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, we argue a lot about our first principle, which affirms and promotes “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” We argue about whether or not it is possible to forfeit that dignity. We argue about the limits of upholding that principle when toxic, destructive individuals use it as a get out of jail free card in our congregations, or when their protectors and enablers quote it on their behalf.
For me, now, inherent worth and dignity is an important principle but will mean very little if society keeps progressing in a way that squeezes human beings so hard economically that privation, fear and panicky competitiveness pound steadily at human beings –whose moral well-being and moral behavior is, let’s face it — largely contingent on justice, equity and compassion (another one of our UU principles, but one to which we give far less attention than our first).
I live in a city now, with many people who live in economic hardship. I am not worried, as many presume I must be, of crimes that will be committed against me by the poor and desperate. I am far more worried about the morale and morality-destroying bitterness, exhaustion, despair and fear that is being inflicted on my community by forces that seem to be beyond our control, but are actually not. Those forces can be met, and should be met. However, I am very well aware that those forces can only be met and engaged by those of us who have enough heart, energy, hope and time to devote to social change.
A popular Unitarian Universalist slogan right now says, “Go love the hell out of the world.”
Perhaps in 2014 we might make a shared, community resolution to hearten each other for this work, for this steady confrontation with forces that lie, steal, starve and shame a huge percentage of the population which regards its lack of financial success as a personal failure. Perhaps in the new year we might refrain from one or two in-fights (per week? per day?) among our own over relatively small matters or semantics and stay focused on the hell in the world, which I believe we can successfully discern if we stay clear about where and what it is.
The Holy Spirit moves among us as a people but speaks to each of us individually. My cause will not always be the same as yours, but our causes intersect and converge in important ways, and are always identified by authentic suffering.
I started this post a few weeks ago and now I have forgotten how I intended to conclude it. I invite you to do so with me. Please contribute a word of hope, a commitment of your own, or a benediction.