Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dreams of Poverty

Sometimes, when I think about my life, I feel very selfish. Even if I am able to exercise temperance and be ascetically abstinent from things, even if I dedicate a lot of time to prayer and gain wisdom and have strong faith and hope, even if I avoid things that are positively unjust or uncharitable or sinful...I still feel guilty about not doing enough actively to help people. I mean materially, the corporal works of mercy.

I think the Church does not emphasize this enough anymore. The greatest sin these days may be Sloth, I'm thinking, yet not because people aren't busy or don't work hard. But we work for our own comfort, and perhaps lack the Fortitude to take the plunge and live as selflessly as Christians really are supposed to do. And while the hierarchy whines on and on about sins against chastity, you don't here much about sins against fortitude or the lack of active charitable giving or volunteering among Catholics (unless, perhaps, they're talking about giving money to them).

I am reasonably confident in my ability to be Just and to act Prudently. When I commit myself to something fully I can be very strong-willed about resisting positive temptations, and so I hope that will allow me to be increasingly Temperate, assuming that I continue my trend of valuing Inner Peace more and more over stoking the fires of wrath and lust (which passions hopefully will also continue just naturally cooling since my stormy teen years, lol). My Faith isn't in question, my Hope springs eternal, and I feel pretty sure, at this point, that God Himself is going to keep wearing away my adamantine Pride drop by tedious drop, in every humiliation he keeps sending my way, and I just have to be passively open to that.

But I have always been afraid that I am, at my core, a lazy coward. That it is negative, rather than positive, temptation that is my weakness; which is to say, the temptation not to do good or necessary things, rather than actually doing bad things. That I am utterly avoidant of facing any sort of discomfort,
especially physically (unless it serves bodily vanity, lol), though also emotionally. That I always put forth only the minimum possible effort or exertion required to avoid greater discomfort, and that my fundamental instinct to minimize experiences or risks of physical pain, anxiety, grief, or terror (even at the price of sacrificing my own positive pleasure or happiness) is the greatest barrier to the full blossoming of Charity within my soul. That fear itself is, indeed, what I am most afraid of, and that this fear of having to experience the emotion of terror (which is much worse than physical pain) is what paralyzes me from taking risks, and would stop me from facing a martyrdom that involved any sort of prolonged torture.

To be fair to myself, I am not only afraid at the thought of my own physical discomfort, but also at the thought of the tragic or painful death of those I love. But maybe only because I fear the grief I would feel, the emotional pain I would undergo? I don't think I fear death in itself, on a conscious level; if it were just like falling asleep it could be very pleasant even. But I'm ironically afraid of my own presumed instinctual fear of death. If I were going to be lethally injected, I don't think the death itself would be terrible (I quite enjoyed the tranquility of being put under anesthesia when I got my wisdom teeth out, actually)...and yet, nevertheless, I for some reason imagine the anticipation of it would be unbearable; that I would work myself up into a cycle of fearing my own anticipated fear.

For a long time, my most feared death was drowning, because of the panic I imagine would be associated with trying to hold my breath, only to eventually be forced to involuntarily inhale, even knowing rationally that it won't help, only to take in a mouthful of water, and then go into desperate spasms trying to cough it up, only to find more water...that terrifies me. I found out that, in many cases, you actually go unconscious before you inhale, thanks to mechanisms related to the relative proportion of CO2 and O2 in the bloodstream. But, still, I don't like to think about it.

That may have gotten rather grim, I'm sorry, and off track! The point was simply my feelings of avoiding positive works of mercy if they discomfort or inconvenience me in anyway, if they require any sort of risk of pain. Now, we all are faced with opportunities everyday, I think, for preforming the spiritual works of mercy to some degree (and some would argue those are more important) just among our friends, our family, people we meet in "real life" and online, etc. But, still, I feel an urge to do more for the poor, the exploited, the oppressed, especially given my anti-imperialist social justice rhetoric. I mean, how much time do I spend just online or watching TV or having fun with friends or traveling with family...while there are children dying of malnutrition, victims of horrible disease and natural disaster, and people who live in filthy hovels?

I've often thought about doing something like running off and joining the Peace Corp or something like that. But something tells me I'm not called for that sort of hands-on activism right now, and I often have to wonder whether that's always the most efficient way even. Not to denigrate the good intentions of anyone trying to help people, but sometimes I hear of youth "work trips" or "mission trips" to exotic locations for, like, a week, to do some token labor with the poor and think to myself, "I bet the poor would have been a lot happier if you just gave them the money you spent on all that airfare." I mean, there are other purposes to such trips of course, including consciousness raising and making real human connections with people in other countries, of other classes, etc. But sometimes I wonder how efficient some of this volunteerism really is, and how much is really just to make the volunteers feel good.

That did get me thinking, though. Even if I do end up just working a job for a salary here in the First World somewhere, that doesn't mean my efforts can't be for the poor. I've often thought about just running away to some Third World country to escape "the System" to escape this American Babylon wherein I sometimes feel like nothing I can do is good because everything (even dissent) has been co-opted, that there can be no real resistance because everything is designed to merely re-enforce the system, to play into their hands. But then, I think, what would I do there? I'd be just one more mouth for the poor country to feed, and would probably get in the way more than help. Besides, I'd be giving up all the advantages and talents and opportunities God has given me here, by putting me in this position socio-economically. I mean, unless I imagine going there and being a guerrilla leader organizing some sort of Third World Revolution (not gonna happen), I certainly would lose all hope of fighting for change on the structural level if I did something like that.

But if my "comparative advantage" is the fact that I have the social capital to get a job here that pays more money in a year than some people in the Third World (who live on a dollar a day) could never even imagine in their lifetime...who's to say I can't funnel most of that to them nonetheless? I wouldn't go so far as to be a Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but since I don't feel called to have children to support, and since even if I were sometime a priest I would not want to be a salaried full-time employee...perhaps I could at least work for the rich to give to the poor. I've often thought that priests or religious, seeing as they're giving up their whole life to live in poverty anyway, could at least do something with their time to channel money toward the poor; if you are going to be doing manual labor anyway as an ascetic discipline, you might as well do it for someone for actual pay, or actually produce something useful, so that you can re-direct the value to someone who needs it. In reality, a lot seem to just be lazy and dependent on the institution...

Right now I'm planning to teach. It doesn't make you rich by our standards, of course, but by the standards of the developing world, that income is a lot comparatively. And given that I am in the social position (as an upper-middle-class American citizen) to get such a job, as unequal as the pay may be (and as much as our domestic economy may be based on exploitation of the periphery)...maybe I can feel comfortable taking that dirty blood-stained money if I give most of it to the poor?

Give 10% to the Church as a tithe, of course, in some distribution between the various institutional organs thereof (my local parish, traditionalist societies, the diocese, good religious orders, Peter's Pence, etc). But then limit myself to living off a certain amount of the rest of my income and just giving the rest away, year after year. If I lived in an RV or something, and could find a church that would let me park in their lot over night...that would even exclude the need for rent or payment for housing. Hmm...

Is that a lazy shortcut to charity? Is that, as it were, simply "buying my way out" of the obligation to actually sweat and get sore helping people, like some Civil War draftee hiring a substitute? I worry about that, I worry that's my attitude. That, while probably more efficient in the long run (if I found good organizations to donate to), I also worry that is impersonal, and that part of self-giving is the actual human contact with the people one is trying to help, and actually facing discomfort and pain and suffering. In many ways, deprivation is easy, I've never liked a lot of possessions anyway as I feel they clutter my life. But is working for and then giving away money like that the same as active self-giving?

Of course, as a teacher I would actually be doing a double deed if I approached it the right way. I could both be helping the students and hopefully being a positive influence on them (even if, in public schools, the religious/aspect aspect need be subtle with discretion) while at the same time laboring to obtain money for the poor. And, as a teacher, there is always time over the summers to actually do "hands-on" help; maybe not internationally, necessarily, but there are plenty of people who need help domestically too. Or maybe, instead of just giving the money to charity, I saved it away for a while to found a charity of my own...though, does the world need anymore organizations if the ones it has already are already underfunded and competing for their own slice of the pie?

Well, those are my musings for the day. Please chime in if you have answers to any of my doubts...


Michael (at the will of God) said...

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will -- all that I have and possess. You have given all that to me. I now give it back to you, O Lord.

All of it is yours.

Dispose of it according to your will. Give me love of yourself along with your grace, for that is enough for me.

[the "Suscipe" of St. Ignatius of Loyola]

a link to Jesuit spirituality

Anonymous said...

"...the more our soul finds itself alone and isolated, the more apt it makes itself to approach and to reach its Creator and Lord, and the more it so
approaches Him, the more it disposes itself to receive graces and gifts from His Divine and Sovereign Goodness."

[from the Spiritual Excercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola]


Michael (with prayers) said...

I once gave you a booklet entitled "Prayer for Finding God in All Things: The Daily Examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola." Consider what it has to say in a reading like lectio, and it should be able to help.

Michael said...

The poor need God as much as they do material support

Michael D said...

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.