Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Perspective on Hardships

My furnace is broken and I am struggling with the manufacturer over a replacement, since it was just installed in 2006.  The house is cool, not freezing today because it's not terribly freezing outside. I'm very lucky. A down comforter and a hot cup of tea and I'm fine.  

Any kind of "suffering" always makes me think of those for whom suffering is a daily event, not an exception.  I struggle with the cliché of being the guilt-ridden middle class do-gooder who really is only trying to appease her guilt, not really caring about others. I do not feel that the cliché is true of me, but I wonder what others would think. I believe I care. I believe that the charities I give to every month - whether I'm employed or unemployed - are organizations that make a difference.  Would it do more good to quit my job and go where I could be of actual, physical assistance?  Or does the money I earn, and therefore contribute, do more good?  I have many mixed feelings about helping the poor.  I know I want to do more than I do, but have no idea where the line is drawn that says helping my own children is more important than helping strangers.  You're probably beginning to see the cliché at work here.

I read the testimony of a young woman from Darfur on the International Rescue Committee website. She was staying in a refugee camp and related the story of how she got there.  She was pregnant when her village was raided.  She fled to avoid being raped or murdered or both - other women reported being raped repeatedly - over 20 times - in that horror that continues there, as far as I know.  When this particular woman was in the middle of her journey she went into labor.  She was alone on a road to a refugee camp and had to stop to give birth to her child. It was pouring rain, she said.  That was what made such a strong impression. She gave birth in the pouring rain.  Her words were few but powerful. "I had no plastic," she said, "I had no plastic."  A sheet of plastic to keep the rain off of her while she delivered her own baby was all she pleaded for. But she gave birth in the rain, and survived, and her baby survived.

I cried and cried when I read this story on the IRC website.  I've given birth. I know what that is. My sister across the world did it under unthinkable circumstances.   I love her. I want to tell her I am so amazed by her, but what a selfish wish. I am not worthy to even speak about what she's suffered.

As my house is cold and I am pondering these things I must find myself considering the other side of the coin - the money side of the suffering coin.  Those who follow greed without conscience, feeling that anything they can get away with is their right to take.  It reminds me of a kid in Paterson who told me that if you pass a car that is not locked and don't open the door and see what's there to take, you are a fool. An unlocked car is an invitation, doesn't everyone know that?  Whatever you find is yours. Period.  It's easy to judge these kids and criticize their values.  But what of an investment banker who figures out how to play with the S&P ratings and literally print his own money?  He figured it out, and no one blew the whistle, so it's fair game. He'd be a fool not to get every penny he could out of his scheme, right?  The thug in Paterson and the thug on Wall Street are cut from the same cloth, motivation-wise. Both are out for whatever they can get away with.  The difference is that the thug on Wall Street hurts hundreds of families, robs hundreds of people of thousands of dollars - and I'm being very conservative here.  Which one should we really be condemning here?  Society most likely rewards the "shrewd" investment banker with the big house and the pretty wife.  Do those of us appalled by these attitudes picket and rant about greed overrunning our society? Or do we live with the fact that society is full of folks with no personal integrity and accept their crimes against us as the cost of parking in Paterson or the cost of taking out a mortgage that's too good to be true?

Those without a conscience need to be policed and controlled - whether they pick pockets or take bribes or play with stock ratings. It's too late to hope they'll learn a lesson or straighten up or grow a conscience. The horse is out of the barn. The water's under the bridge. The damage is done.  I just hope that the rest of us can figure out how to get on with our lives, find jobs if we've lost them, find housing if we've been evicted, and begin to build on a new set of values.

I think we're going to have a revolution.  I hope we rebel against consumerism, stop believing the myth that we have to get more, get bigger, get better, to perceive ourselves as succeeding in life.  I told my daughter today that true success is happiness and the ability to save a little. Not buying Coach bags, or living like a millionaire.  Live within your means - whatever that is - and you're as rich as anyone could ever hope to be.  Save a little for a rainy day. Borrow only for essential expenses. Get your furniture used until you can afford to get it with cash. The Salvation Army Store, garage sales, and Craig's List all have great stuff that anyone could use.  Leave the fancy stuff on payment plans for those too shallow to know what's really important.

I'll conclude my long meandering path through guilt and reflection with one of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotes:  "I have never envied a person who led an easy life.  I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well."  My life has had many difficult moments. None as difficult as the young women of Darfur.  I'm going to go to bed now, snuggle into my down comforter, wear my wool hat and my socks, maybe even a sweater, and sleep comfortably... more comfortably than many will tonight around the world.

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