I haven’t been back to Nicaragua since last February. Circumstances there just haven’t warranted a trip. Ten months seems like a long time when I look at the calendar, but it’s more like a lifetime when I consider how much Spanish language ability I’ve lost during that time. (It’s loss that I could ill afford; I have referenced my Spanish language frustrations here in past entries.) It’s true what they say: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Over the years, I struggled to understand everything that was being said in conversations taking place around me; now I seem to be pretty well lost. The loss of ability to converse, to understand, to explain, to empathize, is a disappointing loss of hope on my part to ever be able to speak with Nicaraguans in their own language.
It strikes me that I may not be the only one.
The U.S. government finds itself in shutdown mode once more. This particular episode seems destined to be of longer duration than the 3- day closing earlier this year or the 16 days experienced in 2013, with the President alternatively claiming “the mantle of responsibility” for himself and blaming Democrats for obstructionism. The Democrats in return have folded their arms and claimed “no money for a wall.” On this, the ninth day of the current closure, the sides are not speaking. They seem to have lost their ability to speak with one another in a common language of compromise. (Something that members of government are charged with doing, by the way.)
Meanwhile, as I bemoan the shrinking opportunity for me to hear and understand Nicaraguans, it’s clear that Nicaraguans are suffering from a similar sort of loss. Theirs is not the loss of words- there have been plenty from both sides of the current impasse- but rather the loss of peace, security, and, in some cases, livelihoods. In a country which already faces immense difficulties of poverty, natural disasters, economic limitations and a history of international intrusions, the loss of meaningful national dialogue is nothing short of tragedy. It’s as though the two sides are speaking different languages.
To complicate matters, we live in an age of technology-centered communication, one which seductively encourages the impersonal use of digits in lieu of voices. Tweets attempt to tell us what to believe as true. E-mails provide shelter to type things we might never consider saying in person. Social media permits the replication and amplification of sometimes false or misleading information. We are told that the digital age should be an assist to language and communications everywhere, yet the modern-day record tells a different story of alienation, mistrust and a growing distance between ourselves and “others,” in locales all over the world.
As a result, perhaps truth and understanding have become qualities that we can only know for personally. Maybe I can come to know Nicaraguan partners only on the basis of shared conversation, face-to-face, Spanish-to-Spanish (if I ever get good enough). Perhaps in this country, the tweets of a compulsive prevaricator have to be disregarded and we must access ideas of substance from more reliable sources. And the claims of either an autocrat or a protestor require affirmation by sources we know and trust and with whom we have spoken. In short, what we know to be true has to come from discourse and discernment through common language If our words have no meaning, then they are no more than empty sounds.
The quality of my Spanish non-fluency diminishes even further with lack of use. Likewise, the quality of our language- our ability to communicate effectively with fellow human beings- diminishes when not exercised regularly. Contrary to some modernists, language does matter, whether it’s the diction, the context or the grammar that make up our best efforts to let another human being know our truth.
It’s a new year. In what is surely a great irony, I pray for the opportunity to return to Nicaragua and to display my utter lack of Spanish language skills. It may be painful but it places me face-to-face with others who also deeply wish to share what they have to teach, what they know as their reality. Here in the U.S., I hope that the men and women entrusted with bipartisan and compromise governance of our country belatedly recognize the damage that their lack of common language is doing to this nation. In Nicaragua, I long for a peaceful resolution to the tensions which have ripped apart that country in ways too terrible to imagine even a year ago.
In every case, hope for healing begins in the expression and meaning of our words, and whether they are shared with any measure of both honesty and compassion….
In the film “Spartacus” on the slave rebellion in 71 BC we recognize the strength of a shared vision. After twice defeating the Roman legions, the gladiators/slaves fell before the legion of Marcus Crassus, who says to thousands of survivors: “you were slaves and you will be slaves again, but you can save yourself from crucifixion if you turn Spartacus over to me.” So Spartacus takes a step forward and shouts, “I am Spartacus”. The man by his side also steps forward, “I am Spartacus”. Within a minute all shout that they are Spartacus. Each gladiator/slave choses death. Why? Following Peter Senge (1990, the Fifth Disciplne) they are not expressing loyalty to Sparacus, but to a shared vision of being free in such a profound way that they prefer dying to being slaves again. “A shared vision – says Senge – is not a idea, not even an important idea like freedom. It is a force in the hearts of people.” In this article we lay out some long term visions, show their importance for lasting change, and we take note of the role of organizations related to the peasantry of our millennium.
That vision of being free emerged as a profound human aspiration in the face of the slavery system, a fire that neither the cross nor death were able to extinguish. In the movie the lover of Spartacus comes up to him and reveals to him that his vision will be realized, “Your son will be born free!” 2089 years later that powerful vision continues present in the foundation of our societies.
Another vision, one of democracy, emerged even before in the years of 500 BC. Even though it excluded 75% of the population (slaves, women and foreigners), that vision arose based on assemblies, building institutions under the power (cracia) of the people (demo). 2500 years later, in spite of the fact that the elites flipped that vision to where democracy exists only under the control of a minority, that Greek vision based on assemblies continues moving millions of hearts.
The vision of the reign of God was sketched out by Jesus of Nazareth, son of a peasant woman and a carpenter, in 30 AD. In a hierarchical and despotic patriarchal world, Jesus envisions the possibility of a “kingdom” for those who are looked down upon – who might be like children, destitute and who would build peace, a reign that is small and becomes big like the mustard seed. Since then, that vision of the kingdom, in spite of being androcentric (king-dom), has mobilized millions of people. It is a vision that made Luther in the 1500s challenge the institutional church and translate the Bible into vernacular languages so that people might have access to God without religious intermediaries.
In the XVIII century the encyclopedists (1751-1772), living at a time with a minority of educated people, envisioned “putting up a wall against barbarism.” That vision of making “papers speak” has moved humanity with revolutions and fights against racism and extreme poverty. It is enough to see the movie “The Power of One” filmed in 1992, based on Africa in the 1930s, to recognize the vision of the encyclopedists, that learning to read made a difference. It is also the advice that we heard from our grandmothers in the countryside, “study, a pencil weighs less than a shovel.”
Even though the idea of organization and the construction of the State emerged with capitalism in the XVI century, societies envisioned alternative forms of organization to the control and rule of capitalism and the State. Thus the cooperative emerged in England against the textile industry and in Germany against usury, under the conviction of joining forces in line with the ideas of associativity of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Cabet and Owen. Along these lines the agrarian cooperative movement in the United States from 1870-1910 made explicit the cooperative vision of democratizing the economy (L.Goodwin, 1978, The Populist Movement). This alternative vision, of joining forces –“elbow to elbow we are much more than two”, as Mario Benedetti would say – to democratize the economy continues moving millions of people who are organizing.
Finally the non violent vision of M. Gandhi (1869-1948) in order to achieve the independence of India from the British empire, and improve the well being of both. That pacifist movement saw that “humanity cannot free itself from violence except through non violence”, that “eye for an eye will leave everyone blind” and that “there is no path for peace, peace is the way”. It is a vision in line with Jesus: “you hear that it was said, eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist the one who is evil; before, to anyone who would hit you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other (Mt 5:38-39). The methods of Gandhi, in accordance with that vision, were the use of hunger strikes, the “salt march” (salt satia graha) that affected the principal source of taxes for England, and being coherent in his actions and ideas (he made his own clothes and was a vegetarian), methods introduced in accordance with the realities and experiences that thehy promoted. That movement inspired Martin Luther King in the United States in the 1960s in his vision of a society where people were treated equally, regardless of their race and color. And Domitila Barrios of Bolivia walked the same route in 1978 with a vision of a country without fear overthrowing the dictatorship of Banzer peacefully, in the words of Eduard Galeano:
I was seated in the principal plaza with 4 other women and a poster that said: “We come from the mines, we are on a hunger strike until the military dictatorship falls.” People made fun of them as they went by. “So just like that 5 women are going to overthrow a military dictatorship! Hahaha, what a great joke!” And the women, unmoved, in solemn silence…After the 5 women they were 50, then 500, then 5,000, then 50,000 and then half a million Bolivians that came together and overthrew the military dictatorship. Why? Because those women were not wrong, fear was what was mistaken.
All these shared visions connect hearts by common aspirations. Yuval Noah Harari (2011, Sapiens: A brief History of humankind) tells that in human evolution homo sapiens differentiated themselves from other species like chimpanzees by their ability to invent myths capable of mobilizing millions of people to cooperate. Visions belong to that genre, they are real, palpable and move incredible forces born from human hearts.
Peasant and indigenous visions
In our days we hear visions that, like those quoted, are mobilizing a good part of humanity. Scrutinizing them, we understand that they are both new and connected to millennial flames. Let us start with the oldest. Our ancestors that lived close to 2 million years ago as hunters and gatherers envisioned human survival based on agriculture, which led them to domesticate plants and animals between 9500 and 3500 BC. Since those years in our DNA is that tense vision of humans subjugating nature or plants like soy beans, wheat, sugar cane and sunflowers multiplying at the cost of “domesticating” humans (Yuval Noah Harari).
Following that vein, the vision of peasant families has been to have land. In the 1970s in Honduras (Azomada, Lempira), the peasants saw idle land taken away from their ancestors and recognizing that fire that came from their grandparents to “recover a piece of land to produce on it”, took those lands as thousands of peasants have done on the face of the earth under the anti-large estate idea that “the land Is for those who work it with their hands” of Emiliano Zapata in 1911. In 1985 when the war was raging in Nicaragua, the State moved 74 indigenous families from Cusmapa and San Lucas to Samarcanda (San Juan del Rio Coco), organized them into cooperatives to confront the Nicaraguan Resistance, as had happened in so many places in the country; one of the leaders, Claudio Hernández recalls, “to get land with coffee we risked our lives, and we accepted being treated as fieldhands and soldiers”; the paradox was that many of those involved in the Nicaraguan Resistance also were fighting for land.
In the 1980s Ricardo Falla S.J. put that vision into words: “a peasant without land is like a being without a soul.” In 1993 I went to La Primavera in Ixcan, Guatemala where hundreds of families that returned from Mexico with the signing of the peace agreements were working the land collectively; at one dinner that a woman shared with me, she whispered: “help us, my husband was killed by the military, I want a piece of land to leave to my children, that his death not be in vain!”; it was a vision shared by families of Mesoamerica and beyond.
Being a farmer is more than having land, as in 9500 BC. In Nicaragua Marchetti and Maldidier (1996, El campesino-Finquero y el Potencial Económico del Campesinado Nicaraguense) detected that peasant vision: “I dream of that day in which my friends visit me and say, what a beautiful farm you have!” The land would not just be a plot with annual crops on it, but a diversified farm with permanent crops – because “tree have value”, said Tupac Barahona and Marcelo Rodríguez with the peasantry of Masaya (Nicaragua) and nourish biodiversity, as Abraham Cruz observed in Peñas Blancas (El Cuá, Nicaragua); “the birds of the forest come to eat on the farms.” In Honduras, Carlos Cantoral from Terreritos (Nueva Frontera) in the 2000s, sketched out what food sovereignty and peasant autonomy is, echoing our ancestors thousands of years ago:”being a peasant is producing what my family eats, without depending on anyone” – without a debt with the usurer, without giving in to the intermediary, and without lowering your head in the presence of the politician and religious leader. And again in Honduras Porfirio Hernández de Trascerros (Nueva Frontera) in 2018 describes those who lose that vision: “even having cattle they walk around money in hand looking for their corn grinder,” unfortunate is that family that does not first ensure their food. These are the families that resist being a clone of monocropping, families that grow their corn and produce their food on more and more diversified farms, which gives them the freedom to generate their own thinking and experiments, and a basis for cultivating their autonomy and resisting proletarization – and much more if it is organic agriculture.
Being a farmer and processing what is produced to ensure food “in green and mature times” has been a vision for thousands of years. Humanity learned to dry meat under the sun in its era of hunting and gathering, and in the years of 3000 BC made bread, and the Incas stored potatoes as starch, exposing potatoes to the sun during the day and to the cold at night. In this vein we find the peasantry of the XVII and XVIII centuries envisioning agro industrializing raw material in their communities. That vision, in spite of being squashed by capitalist industry and later by the socialism of Preobrazhensky and Stalin, persisted within Europe itself. That is why there are around 1100 flavors (brands) of beer in Belgium today, or vineyards and wine in Trentino, Italy. And it persists in Latin America. In Honduras in 2008 (Laguna de La Capa, Yoro), in the face of the “vocation” of the agricultural frontier to receive a peasantry whose grandchildren migrated with sugar cane and sugar mills defeated by the slavish rule that “only the rich make sugar”, the COMAL Network and peasant families started to process granulated sugar in the community itself. Cirilo George from the APROCATY Associative Enterprise put that fire into words, “we will not go back”, referring to the fact that individually they fell with their sugar cane into that destiny and that slavish rule, but organizing themselves, they made that vision of agro-industrialization palpable, as the Manduvirá Cooperative of Paraguay has done. In 2015 Raul Cruz from the Forest Rangers Cooperative (El Cuá, Nicaragua), after years of growing coffee, visiting two roasters, had a vision: “I imagined myself selling roasted, ground coffee”; what he imagined kept him from sleeping and he began to make his roasters from barrels in order to today sell roasted, ground coffee in 1 lb packages. Visions that move human will and show a path for creating living communities.
Having land, being a farmer, processing food…and selling! What a chain of visions! Even though the peasantry sees itself at odds with commerce, their aspirations include commercializing in order to cooperate. Within this perspective, in Honduras (Encinos, Intibucá) in the midst of intimidating polices under the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s and 1970s, women and men who would walk for days through mud to buy what they were not producing, envisioned “bringing in a store managed by us the Lenca peasant ourselves, right here.” That community, like the members of the La Unión Store in Taulabé, Honduras. Maquita Cosunchej of Ecuador, or the Hope of the Peasants Cooperative in Panama, overcame the old rule that “peasants and indigenous are no good at selling, only at planting.” Maybe individually it is difficult for a peasant family to sell, they say that it is a “betrayal of a promise” (buying oneself in order to sell your own product later), but organized is another story, because “the market is really relationships of people coming together, getting to know one another and trusting one another”– Peter Druckers would say to Peter Schwartz (1996, The Art of the Long View). In the 1990s again in Honduras a dozen leaders of several organizations, among them Auristela Argueta, saw a vision that continues to light up deep Mesoamerica: “we now have land, we are producing our food and something more, a market for selling and exchanging our products.” That aspiration that markets can connect organized people to one another, was the seed that gave rise to the Comal Network of Honduras.
What is distinctive about these visions and the imperative to see them
These visions, far from the current ones that businesses tend to express to generate capital or the blueprint of organizations of “being a leader” to find donations and “to put a patch on the problem” (formulate visions as a formality), move human determination through time and are like flames that do not go out, in search of a greater good. What distinguishes them? They are born out of crises, when that which should die, does not, and what should sprout, does not, as A. Einstein used to say: “creativity is born from anguish as day from night.” Adversity is overcome by “swimming against the current” and connecting oneself with centennial and millennial human aspirations that, like tectonic plates, shake even the most solid land, like that outrageous belief that a divine being or the market writes human destiny. They are understood by people discontent with the status quo, geniuses who question their worlds, see other possible realities, expand their mental horizons and really believe in their capacity to create the future because they experience it daily. As Blanca Rios advised her sons Juan, Victorino and Noel Adams, members of the Bosawas Cooperative in El Cuá, Nicaragua, “never feel you are on a horse, even if you are in the stirrups, because many people on a horse can end up on foot.” They are shared visions that emerge from personal visions, and not from adhering to visions prepared by managers or consultants; they derive their energy and commitment precisely from the fact that they come from personal visions.
These shared visions reorder life. If your vision is that your family eats what you produce, that makes you reorder your farm, the work of your family and your relationships with your neighbors, and if that vision is shared by other people of an organization, this reorients the organization toward that vision. They are concrete visions, here and now, visions that make them encounter the stranger and discover themselves. They are visions that cause changes day to day, brick to brick, seed after seed, the drop of water that cracks the stone.
In the face of these visions of future frameworks that we want to create, the challenge for peasant and indigenous organizations is to encourage their members to express their visions, understand them, and embody them in agreements and new rules to support the peasantry, the basis for food and assurance of environmental sustainability for humanity. For that purpose, the more an organization opens itself to learning, the more it tunes its ear to hear the visions, the more it takes out a pencil to take notes and ruminate on them, the more it reinvents itself, breaking rules like “the older one gets, the less one changes”, “the more one studies, the more one forgets about where they came from”, and “the more power one gets, the more farther they get from the people”. A peasantry that organizes itself and awakens to the fact that they can create their future, is more connected to the vision of Jesus, feels more the vision of the gladiators/slaves, seeks to have more democratic assemblies, aspires more the path of non-violence, makes agriculture an art, and weaves more of their own thinking, seed after seed- like constantly falling drops of water that eventually make a hole even in stone. Shared visions, in the midst of the tensions and adversities of all times, move human mountains and help us to be generators of long term change that started just yesterday.
I’ve continued to think about the comments made last week by the President of the U.S. Even though he later denied some of the words attributed to him, and two of his most ardent supporters stated that they did not recall his use of the words, there seems to be little doubt about what was actually said and why. The entire episode was astonishing to those with any sensibilities, regardless of political affiliation.
But my own reflections on the matter shifted to the countries in question, the ones which were denigrated so graphically by the leader of the free world. What’s the possible basis for such demeaning remarks? Are these nations really so awful? And if so, why? I suppose that, by comparison, Nicaragua might be one of those countries which the U.S President had in mind: it’s the second-poorest nation of the Western Hemisphere (next to Haiti), has a history of internal conflicts and dictatorships, contributes to both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S. and has sustained a strained relationship with U.S. administrations for decades. With that in mind, I considered the circumstances that might have led countries like Nicaragua, Haiti and the African nations to be held in such contempt by the wealthiest country in the world.
At least in the case of Nicaragua, the beginning of their modern-day difficulties date back to the 1850’s invasion of that country by invasion from the U.S. Over subsequent decades, the North American neighbor alternately funded insurrection, invaded with U.S. Marines, supported a generations-long dictatorship of oppression, illegally funded a war against a duly-elected Nicaraguan administration, ignored a World Court penalties of $6 Billion for their illegalities, consistently and forcefully interfered in elections and has recently threatened legislation to eliminate U.S. remittances to Nicaragua families. In sum, it has been an excellent recipe for the creation of a troubled existence.
In Haiti, the early troubles inflicted by the U.S. were quite similar to the incursions in Nicaragua. On July 28, 1915, American President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to occupy the capitol. Forces were instructed to “protect American and foreign” interests. The U.S. also wanted to rewrite the Haitian constitution, which banned foreign ownership of land, and replace it with one that guaranteed American financial control. To avoid public criticism, the U.S. claimed the occupation was a mission to “re-establish peace and order… [and] has nothing to do with any diplomatic negotiations of the past or the future.” Within six weeks of the occupation, U.S. government representatives seized control of Haiti’s custom houses and administrative institutions, including the banks and the national treasury. Under U.S. government control, a total of 40% of Haiti’s national income was designated to repay debts to American and French banks. For the next nineteen years, U.S., government advisers ruled the country, their authority provided by the United States Marine Corps. The U.S. retained influence on Haiti’s external finances until 1947. It was a good way to subdue a culture, an independent economy and self-determination and to ensure their third world status.
For the African continent, the litany of U.S. interventions and self-serving intrusions is far too long to even summarize here. Africa is a big place, and nearly every one of its fifty-four countries has experienced U.S. interference at one point in history or another. But the following description of cause-and-effect, excerpted from an article by Mark Levine at aljazeera.com provides some context for current reality:
Traveling across Sub-Saharan Africa it becomes a truism—but nonetheless in good measure true—that the areas where the region’s much-celebrated recent growth is most evident are precisely where people are able to create local markets largely outside the control of corrupt government and private elites. But the large-scale and still expanding militarisation and securitisation of US policy makes the development of such truly free-market mechanisms that much more difficult to realise, precisely because the strengthening of capacities of militaries and security/intelligence sectors invariably strengthens the power of elites and states vis-a-vis ordinary citizens, exacerbates economic conflicts and inequalities, and strengthens the position of those groups that are violently reacting to this process.
The poverty which continues to envelop much of the continent is the result of far more than just the meddling of the United States. But the U.S. footprint is present in both actions taken and assistance NOT rendered; if these constitute s***hole countries, perhaps they are perceived this way because we in the U.S. have chosen to see them and respond to them in that way. After all, no less than the U.S. President has identified them as such. (I think the President is unaware of the fact that earliest humans emerged from Africa. Not Europe. Not North America. Not Norway. But Africa.)
The unfortunate truth for many struggling nations is to be found in the poor-man-crawling story:
A wealthy man was walking on a city street, preoccupied with cell phone and important connections. His preoccupation resulted in a collision with a somewhat disheveled and homeless man walking in the opposite direction. The poor man fell down, momentarily stunned by the contact, but immediately reached out to gather up several of his belongings which had been knocked from his hands. The wealthy man, perturbed at the mishap and the dropping of his own phone, retrieved it brusquely and then observed the poor man on hands and knees, salvaging his few possessions. As he walked away indignantly, the wealthy man observed, “It’s disgusting to see the way these vagrants crawl our sidewalks. The police should do something about them, to make the streets safe for respectable folks.”
Where there is hunger and thirst, need and distress, poverty and injustice, there are reasons for it. And sometimes the reasons lie at the feet of those who are not thus afflicted. S***hole countries, if they actually exist, may well be the result of outsiders who have created them….
The man who is at the front of the reality show called the American presidency raised a salient question yesterday, concurrent with his degrading, insulting and profane comments about people of Haitian or African descent. In a moment which demonstrated his most deep-seated feelings about race, the pretend president asked why he would want “all these people from shithole countries,” adding that the U.S. should admit more people from places like Norway. In other words, we don’t want any people with brown skin or black skin, but we’d be happy to have as many as possible of the white ethnicity.
It’s a good question, one for which there are more answers than time or space to reply. Why would we want people like astronauts Ronald McNair or Guion Bluford? Why did we allow George Washington Carver in? What did Neil de Grasse Tyson or Dorothy Vaughn ever do for us? Hank Aaron should never have been here. Nor Willie Mays. Why would we ever have wanted the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or any of the millions of African-American citizens of this country who were either born in one of these “shithole countries” or descended from immigrants who came from them. The course of our country’s independence, wealth and freedoms would have been dramatically different without the countless individuals who came here, involuntarily or by choice, and dedicated their lives to the character of our country.
Certainly, we don’t want any more immigrants from a place like Haiti. What would we do with another Sidney Poitier? The artist John Jay Audubon was one more Haitian than we probably needed. The likes of Danielle Laraque-Arena, first woman president of The State University of New York Upstate Medical University, surely aren’t needed here. We have plenty of orchestrators, so no more Lee Holdridges, please. In fact, Haiti is the poorest country in the entire Western Hemisphere and we have plenty of “those types” in our nation already.
The President of the United States (in title) has now been crystal clear with his racist and elitist beliefs. That a sitting president of any party would make such insulting and inaccurate statements about entire ethnicities is a desecration of leadership perhaps matched only in history by a man named Hitler.
Winds of Peace Foundation has been and remains a politically independent organization, without political affiliation or endorsement. The President’s comments yesterday are egregious beyond political party….
I’ve been reading an absorbing article in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine, entitled, “Why We Lie.” I’m going to guess that it might be the most widely-read article that the magazine has ever published; as the article posits, we all lie, and the title draws us to want to understand ourselves a little better, since most of us regard that characteristic as a negative. (Why do I choose to do that, anyway?)
The article is fascinating and full of the reasons and motivations for our lies. (Gosh, it even makes me feel bad to write that line.) Some of our deceptions are protective, some are ego-driven, some are avoidance-based and some are even altruistic: lies intended to help someone or avoid their discomfort. (Can I claim ownership to this category as my only source of lies?) It turns out that we all have dishonesty built into our makeup.
“Lying, it turns out, is something that most of us are very adept at. We lie with ease, in ways big and small, to strangers, co-workers, friends and loved ones. Our capacity for dishonesty is as fundamental to us as our need to trust others, which ironically makes us terrible at detecting lies. Being deceitful is woven into our very fabric, so much so that it would be truthful to say that to lie is human.”
Wow. I never realized the extent of the dark deceit that surrounds each of us. Certainly, I acknowledge the ubiquity of lies in everyday life: (does “fibs” make that sound less awful?). Advertisements promise results that could never be true, tabloid magazines publish stories with no semblance to reality, political pundits dish out speculation and innuendo without any basis in fact, and social media simply multiplies the problem. But, within our own circle of family and friends? (I wonder now whether those kind words about my sweater were sincere or sinister?)
The reality of our lying makes working in Nicaragua even more difficult than it might otherwise be. Already, I must navigate relationships and circumstances through translation and my North American eyes. Now, in addition, I read that there are also untruths being spoken, even if for the very best and most reasonable of reasons: hunger, shelter, health, life itself. I’m not naive; I am well aware of the frequency of exaggeration and overstatement by people in dire need of assistance, financial and otherwise. But reading an entire article about it underscores what has been mostly an uncomfortable subtext. (Truth be told, now, it feels more omnipresent and, somehow, more problematic than before.) Should the possibility of half-truths suddenly feel more offensive insulting or more threatening?
I’ve thought about that and decided that the answer is likely “no.” If the article in National Geographic is even close to being accurate, we’ve all been subject to speaking and hearing lies during our entire lives. There is nothing new happening here, only some data to confirm it. It’s a bit like enduring a destructive overnight storm and awakening in the morning to read details about what you have already personally experienced. (I swear, the hail stones were the size of melons!)
But there’s another reality which mitigates any sense of wrong that I might feel after being lied to. When someone utters an untruth, often he/she is the one who is most hurt by it. Lies can be like items posted on the Internet, in that they never really go away. (All lies should be marked as spam.) They continue to exist, hiding in memory until the moment when they can cause the maximum in embarrassment and loss. Falsehoods diminish who we are by eroding our credibility, our connection to truth, and to our own self-worth. And those erosions hurt. A deliberate lie to someone else is also a lie to ourselves, made even worse because we know the truth. The conflict is, ultimately, wrenching. (Is this why on some days I don’t feel as well as on others?)
We each have little in this world that is truly ours. (What about my guitars?) Material items come into our lives, and then they go. The people in our lives enter and exit. Always. We take nothing from this world but our own integrity and sense of honor, two matters about which we can attempt to lie to ourselves, but without success. It’s true in politics, in business, in farming, philanthropy and any other endeavor we can imagine.
I doubt that reflections here will have much impact on people in their day-to-day correspondence with each other; as the article observes, it’s “in us.” But like any nagging habit, we can work on it. We can make it better. Ultimately, our well-being is built upon what is real, and whoever we are, truth will out….
One of my daughters, Molly, has been working with a local university in co-teaching a section on the concept of privilege. She’s very excited about the opportunity and the subject matter; in turn, I’m very excited to hear about the class sessions and how people respond to the comforts or discomforts of privilege. It’s a section of social work students, so my presumption is that they have some awareness of the societal realities regarding privilege. It’s a topic that touches every one of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Molly commented on the awkwardness exhibited by most of the class members in discussing the notion of their own privilege; it is a group of predominantly white, middle-class students. Maybe they were feeling a bit of “privilege guilt” or, contrary to my assumptions, perhaps they had never really thought about privilege in their own context. Whatever the cause, the members of the class struggled in that first session, heads down, voices silent, struggling with whatever notions occupied their hearts and minds. (Molly related that subsequent sessions became more open, less constrained.)
But the episode spawned interesting conversation between Molly and me, in part because Molly is an ethnic minority herself, an adoptee from Korea at infancy. She can personally relate to the idea of privilege, both from the standpoint of a minority who has grown up in a white-privilege society, as well as from the point of view of someone who was raised in a family of relative economic and opportunity privilege. The dialogue prompted some musing on my part, as I contemplated the problems inherent in discussing such a charged topic as privilege.
The first of these problems is that privilege is something that everyone inherently wants. We may not refer to it in terms of privilege, but it’s that competitive or better position that all of us seek, and in nearly all avenues of life. We want to be “first in line.” It might be first in line for a new technology. We line up through the night to obtain front row tickets. We follow our sports teams in hopes of being able to claim, “We’re number one!” even though the game is played by others. We push ourselves at work so that we might advance in title and pay. We wonder longingly what it might be like to have great material wealth or not to be required to work. Sometimes we even compete to be among the first to escape the church parking lot on Sundays. It’s in us instinctively. Whether it’s called getting ahead or realizing one’s full potential or seeking favor in the way our communities look at us, privilege is seen as an advantage, or an honor, or a placement somehow better than before, better than where others are. We might equate the term privilege with those who are of the economic upper 1%, but it’s an objective we all strive to achieve.
The second problem is that, whether we believe it or not, nearly every one of us already enjoys some degree of privilege in our lives. Everything is relative in life, and if we could chart the degree of privilege of every human being on a continuum, the only person without privilege would be the individual at the very bottom. For all the rest of us, we occupy some position that is further ahead or better off than those below us. We need to recognize that just as we gaze jealously or longingly at someone who we regard as being “ahead” of us, there is someone doing the same thing from below. All of us are more privileged than some. Some are more privileged than most. Most are more privileged than the least. I even have met some of the least who regard their lot in life as more privileged than the most. So the cycle depends entirely upon one’s point of view and the meaning of “privilege.”
Third of these problems is that, despite our privilege in life, very few of us recognize that we have it. We seem to feel as though everyone else has it. No matter what the blessings or good fortunes of our lives, we are fixated on those who seemingly have so much more, believing that it’s these fortunate few who are the privileged. The recognition of privilege is as difficult as knowing our own incompleteness: we can only see it in others. There are good and valid reasons for us to dream about privilege; such dreams often fan the flames of knowledge and invention. But privilege has visited most of us, even when we never recognized its random faces.
Finally, privilege has never embraced notions of fairness or justice. When disparities exist among people, discussion of them is usually laced with guilt or blame or other tension to drive a wedge between those who have and those who have less. The fact that privilege is so unevenly divided within our society has been cause for debate throughout our history. It continues to be, and the arbiter of privilege falls to whatever political perspective happens to own government. That’s ironically the privileged class, and so the cycle continues its lopsided turn.
If the problems of privilege are understood and acknowledged, then a meaningful dialogue can happen for people wanting to know their own places in the equation. It’s a searing examination of self and other that requires enormous self-honesty and deep compassion. But the undertaking is a sort of privilege unto itself….
Winds of Peace Foundation has embraced many goals for itself since its beginnings: we have sought to help cultivate economic opportunity for the poor, social justice for women, restoration of rights for Indigenous peoples, strengthened education for children, fostered peace and reconciliation between the marginalized and the empowered, and encouraged an holistic health and well-being for the sick. The list is ambitious and maybe unrealistic in some people’s views, but that doesn’t render the goals any less important or urgent. (The rescuers at the buried hotel in the French Alps last month began their efforts with individual hand scoops of snow, which eventually led to saving lives.)
Along the way, the work spawns the entire range of human emotions. Often we feel frustration at the slow pace of change, both within Nicaragua and in the U.S. and other nations. There is also joy, such as in knowing that Foundation resources have made it possible for young children to access books for reading. Irritation is never far away, often associated with someone’s lack of context or understanding, where a good intention paradoxically becomes a hindrance to progress. There are even occasional moments of anger, as when someone of privilege abuses that posture, at the expense (usually) of the most defenseless in society. Nicaragua is home to many causes for emotional reaction.
So it was with a sense of another emotion- incredulity- that I read about… a basketball fan. I’m not much of a fan myself, usually only paying attention in March as the collegiate teams vie for playoff glories. But I couldn’t help but notice the results of a recent match-up between the Universities of Iowa and Minnesota. The teams not only played close, but actually extended the game to two overtime periods, before Minnesota prevailed. Apparently, the end result was helped significantly by an errant call by a referee late in the game, a fact that left the Iowa faithful unhappy, at best. But, bad calls are part of the game of basketball. Referees are human, they can only see so much at a time, there are lots of big bodies pivoting all over the court at high speed. When the mistakes happen, we shake our heads and move on. It’s part of what makes the game and sometimes creates basketball lore. Right?
The day following the game, I read some of the displeasure of the Iowa fans in the news. And there, among the laments and the grieving, emerged a comment which grabbed and confronted me. One Iowa fan confided, “This fills me with an anger I have never felt before.”
I needed to first consider what the writer was saying, that never before had he/she ever felt such a rage. Then I felt many emotions for the writer: pity, that something as comparatively insignificant as a game (one being watched, not played) could command such control over his/her life; joy, that he/she had apparently never had occasion to experience great anger in life; perplexity, for someone whose emotional passion is apparently confined to entertainment; and, yes, anger, that of all the injustices in our country and the world today, this was the one to garner his/her deep emotion.
There are many realities that might give rise to anger: the murder of an innocent 2-year old in Chicago comes to mind; genocide in Syria and Africa; racial injustice in the U.S. and other countries; an average Nicaraguan income of $2 a day. An accounting of human tragedies around the world provides a surplus of reasons for deep-seated anger. But a missed call during a basketball game?
Maybe it was overstatement, something “tweeted” in the heat of a disappointing moment. Maybe the writer was looking for a way to underscore just how unhappy he/she was feeling with poor officiating. But as I thought about the declaration, I thought I recognized a brutal truth about it. For those of us living in the material bounty of a place like the U.S., priorities too often become defined by our craving for comforts. We reach a point psychologically where we want what we want, and we believe we somehow deserve it, and that’s what is important, enough so to engender a depth of anger “never felt before.”
The entire episode made me, well, uncomfortable. I pulled from my wall a framed quotation from Kahlil Gibran: “…the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house as a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master.” Here’s hoping that the comforts of our lives never take over matters that have meaning….
Among the lessons emerging from the Certificate Program in early September, we heard wisdom in many different forms. The Certificate Program, by design, has a very holistic feel about it, a compendium of thinking on topics as diverse as growing and commercializing crops, understanding gender issues more deeply, seeing the environment as a fragile home, leadership, followership, organizational and personal health, and spirituality in work. The September edition narrowed a bit, though still rich in wide-ranging matters. One topic struck me as particularly interesting, given our Nicaragua location and the peasant participants at hand.
In the course of our time together, we were introduced to an allegorical tale of sorts, one that was intended to stir our thinking about what matters to us, what holds value and is therefore worthy of our time and energy. The tale is presented here:
A couple was walking down the street, when they noticed a man under a street lamp, looking for something on the ground. As they approached him in order to help, they quickly determined that he was drunk. But they asked him, “Sir, have you lost something?”
“I lost my gold ring,” was his reply.
The couple helped him look for a long while, until they grew tired and frustrated with the fruitless search. The couple asked him, “Are you certain that you lost it here?”
“I am sure that I did NOT lose it here, but over there,” he said, pointing to a darker area nearby.
“Then why are you looking here?” they asked him, wondering if they had not heard him correctly.
“Because the light from the street lamp doesn’t reach over there, but only here! Can’t you see that?” he responded in a surprised and challenging tone of voice.
The story elicited a wide range of perspectives and interpretations, all of which added insight to the tale; the attendees gave the story some serious consideration as they tried to discern its lessons. But for me, one conclusion stood out above the others. In short, it was the question of “where do you seek your treasure?”
It’s not a new question. But in the rural mountains of Nicaragua, where the basic economics for living have been hard to sustain, where availability of food depends far too heavily upon the vagaries of weather and blight, and where populations might well be excused for seeking gold under seductive bright lights, I did not anticipate the consensus answer to the treasure-question that emerged.
Their first, tentative answers tended to be the seemingly obvious: the man was wasting his time- and that of others- by virtue of his irresponsible drunken condition; he needed to understand the importance of a clear mind; treasures lost might never be found again. Then the responses became more reflective: the man was searching in a place that would never reward him; the easy way is not always the best way; sometimes you must discover your own treasure, your own truth, by yourself. And finally, the lessons became personal, philosophical: we too often seek that which is of greatest value in the wrong places; burdens are made easier when encountered in the light; in searching for that which we think will bring us wealth, we just may discover something else of even greater intrinsic value.
For rural Nicaraguan producers, who face some of life’s most difficult challenges, the story had become all about understanding values, where to look, how to look, how to reconcile what we might wish to be true with our actual truths. I find myself still marveling at the honesty of their thinking and analysis of their truths. For, it’s an easier exercise to tackle when one’s basic needs have been met and one has the luxury of contemplating things like self-actualization. It’s a more profound conclusion to reach when it’s not just an exercise….