Have you ever felt the difference between going through something that feels impossibly difficult while knowing you are exactly where you need to be – and going through hell for absolutely no fruitful reason?
Since I have last blogged, I have felt both of these feelings intensely, and I haven’t found a way to articulate them. “So why try?” I asked myself, resigning to silence.
But the aged gentleman in Harrisburg’s downtown shopping center, sitting in his electronic wheelchair, talking to me simply because I was in his proximity, has helped me to finally express that which I have found terrifying to put into words.
“That’s a cute baby. I never had babies. I never married. I’m old now, but I think it was God’s way of not putting me on a bus that was going to crash.”
I didn’t care. I had work to do. I had simply come to the shopping center for WiFi, since we had just finally managed to move into an apartment and didn’t yet have money to buy internet. I was blowing him off with head nods and “mm-hmms” to passively affirm that I was hearing his words.
“I know it’s tough out there, especially when you have children, but if you go to one of those third world countries and come back here, you’ll kiss the ground you walk on.”
“Bullshit,” I probably said to myself at that time, just loud enough so that nobody could hear, except my 9-month daughter who probably shouldn’t be learning swear words yet.
But this was a warranted “bullshit,” unlike most.
You see, during my recent trip to Uganda, we were detained by all kinds of top authorities. I often have dreams that they are following me – that there is nowhere I can hide and no thought I can think without them watching. I had one of those dreams last night. The experiences I have had are not really all that scary, to be honest. They are mostly boring. What sounds more frightening is the ongoing targeting of my friends and colleagues in Uganda who work for justice and peace. The threats (subtle and overt), the arrests, the unexpected arbitrary killings and arsons.
Yet despite all of this, I don’t fear for my safety or my life. I don’t even fear for my friends. They may die for truth, but their martyrdom is the most authentic posture they can have to demonstrate abandonment of the self for something greater and more beautiful.
I fear only for the lifelessness of the living.
This kind of lifelessness is all around me in America. We wake up early, dress in our winter best to get a good spot in line, hope that we’ve reached early enough to get some bread before only the moldy stuff is left, and then rush to the next office. Survival. I carry my baby in one hand and type with the other. I could go work, maybe, but most of my earnings would end up in the hands of child care providers notorious for spreading diseases among infants. Is it worth the price? There are ways to survive, ways to make ends meet, but for most of us here, few paths lead to a fundamentally human life. We exist as dogs. Even those who are financially stable dwell in ignorance and wish to remain blind to the perils and injustices that they help perpetuate (either with their active participation or their complacency).
But these are all things you expect me to say, and they distract us from the true tragedy that lifelessness is even present in the places we don’t expect it. That realization is even more paralyzing than the blunders of inequality, which are expected to be everywhere as long as humans value wealth and progress.
Lifelessness, in the America I know, is found even in communities of individuals who claim to be fed up, who are tired of the system’s abuse, who want to create a world with less and less alienation. These are the people I have deliberately aligned myself with. They are more fun. They have a worldview capable of sending the status quo into exile. They have a lot of great qualities I admire and come in all sorts of interesting shapes and sizes.
This is why I am grieved to witness that many (most?) of them are dead to themselves. Maybe because it’s hard. Maybe because their task is too daunting. Maybe because they don’t have others to encourage them. Maybe because they lack a strategy. But the deeply-rooted underlying problem, I think, is that people have succumbed to the ideology of empire – the belief that success is important. The belief that moving up matters. The belief that working hard for someone else’s profit is honorable. The belief that worth, purpose, meaning, joy, and fulfillment are best found through participation with the means the empire’s system has created.
In the past few weeks, I have realized there is nothing noble about this pursuit. My wife rides her bike several hours each week to help us make ends meet. I watch the baby and fail to get much done as a nonprofit volunteer. Sometimes we have money to buy good ingredients for nice meals. Other times we are tired and money isn’t there. We work hard, but to what end? Who is benefitting? It is not us.
There is an alternative, which is what most Americans, even most of my friends, do not see or truly believe. Humans do not have to be quarreling dogs, consumers, customers, employees, subjects, or statistics. We are bound for something much greater.
I imagined giving the gentleman a real response. “Our home in Uganda may be plagued with dictatorship and corruption. It may not have progressed very much, in terms of technology and ‘civilization,’ but I can uproot any food from my garden, I can build my home, I can sit with neighbors and call it ‘good.’ This reality will be sustained despite war and despite oppression. But as for this country, it will collapse – and this collapse will happen all the faster the more you and I kiss its filthy feet.” So, friends, recognize Stockholm syndrome when you have it, and seek treatment. Be aware – the treatment is not pain-free, but it is necessary.