The tensions have not diminished. The rhetoric has not cooled. The confrontations have not stopped. The misrepresentations have not ceased to confound and anger. But in an age of “alternative facts,” pictures can and do speak louder than words.
It was not that long ago that a certain politician set the tone for his presidency by claiming that the crowd on hand to observe his oath of office was the largest in history, and much greater than his predecessor. The pictures said otherwise.
In Nicaragua, some of the voices of government claimed that last Wednesday’s demonstration was not significant in terms of numbers. But after one look at the video footage below,
one would have to conclude that, regardless of denials, the turnout and the outrage expressed against the Ortega government is significant, indeed.
Truth is always a slippery treasure to hold on to. But misrepresentations and outright lies never diminish the truth, they just hide it for a while. Nicaraguans are apparently raising their voices in volume perhaps not heard since the days of the revolution. The truth may be inconvenient for some, but it is no less the people’s reality….
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….
-William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act III, Scene iv
It’s good advice for any of us. The only way to really understand the point of view of “others” is to walk a mile in their moccasins, experience what they experience, see life through their lenses. Truth is ultimately made up of our experiences, what we have seen and felt. If we have never exposed ourselves to the reality of others, as well as our own, we will never have the knowledge to move closer to the truth.
Most immigrants seek to enter this country for reasons which have nothing to do with terrorism or destruction. In fact, most immigrants would prefer not leaving their own homelands at all. But the prospect of losing family members to the violence of war or the ravages of hunger will overshadow nearly any other consideration. What wouldn’t you be prepared to do for the protection of your child, or spouse or parent? Necessity is the mother of invention, perhaps especially when it comes to survival.
It might be instructive for the billionaire leaders of our new administration to encounter hunger or violence face-to-face, for a personal understanding of what’s behind many of the immigrants’ motivations. For example, I have found sharing a meal of egg and tortilla- when such food might well represent the entirety of a host Nicaraguan family’s larder- to be an educational, humbling and emotional event. I’m fairly certain that our new President has never wanted for clean water, so maybe a visit to areas of Central America where clean water is an absolute rarity could provide an alternate view on trading water security for oil pipeline routing in the Dakotas. (Along the way, he might find himself grappling with the question of why some of the pipeline was re-routed after wealthier folks to the north expressed alarm that the pipeline ran too close to their own properties and thus needed to be located elsewhere. Like where the Native American reservations are.) Actually, a second trip into Mexico could be a useful journey for the new President if, this time, the stay included a hike into a barrio where most of the inhabitants are poor; it could provide a different slant on Mexico’s ability to pay for a wall, one that would serve the U.S. border.
I like the idea of being “first.” In many ways, it’s encoded in our DNA to strive and succeed. Competition has been the engine which has brought about many of the most important inventions and discoveries in human history. I readily confess to having lived a good share of my life in this mindset. It wasn’t until my first venture into an impoverished world that I was able to truly “feel what wretches feel.” The awakening might not have been pleasant, but it was important.
That experience provided the insight to understand that being first is not only a hallmark of success, but a label of obligation. When we are first, we have the duty toward the last. In fact, we need the last to be with us, to advance with us, to complete us. How the poorest of the world’s humanity lives is not a reflection on them, but upon the rest of us. It is not only the elite members of the new U.S. presidency who could use exposure to the rest of the world’s realities. After all, a presidency is presumably a reflection of its constituents. Rather, such perspective is needed in all of us, each of us, who claim to be seeking truth as part of the human journey.
A shared vision is only possible with a shared experience….
I’ve had this poster hanging in my office for perhaps the past 30 years or so. I don’t even recall where it came from, but I was immediately taken with its message of holism and strength and living an integrated life, so I kept it as a reminder of how I thought I should try to build my own life. Or, at the very least, to remind myself of how out of balance I can become and how easily the imbalances can happen.
The components of the castle construction are insightful and beg reflection, but it’s the heading of the graphic that poses The Castle Paradox: “A Dream Is A Goal Taken Seriously.” It states in very economical terms an entire philosophy of personal and organizational development. (Naturally, I am drawn to perceived truths that seem to make sense in my own life.) And the idea here is essentially that any dream of mine- as nebulous and sometimes impractical as it may seem- might be nonetheless achievable if I will be resolved to wrestle with the enormity of my vision and conquer its small component parts, if I can harness the power of my very own spirit, if I will treat it as an objective or reality as opposed to a fiction. After all, objectives are things that simply need to be done, while dreams too often occupy the realm of fantasy, well beyond my reach. I like the idea of grappling with something tangible.
But the paradox is both encouragingly simple and maddeningly problematic. Our loftiest aspirations might well be within our reach but only if we can teach ourselves how to re-imagine their achievement. Sometimes the path to succeeding is, indeed, by the “road less taken,” and that can be a path that is difficult to discern.
The Castle Paradox and the puzzlement that it brings to most of us in real life remind me of the lessons from one of my favorite books, The Paradoxes of Leadership, by Charles R. Edmunson. Ostensibly written for leaders in employee-owned companies in the U.S., the book is a compendium of lessons that apply equally well to individuals simply trying to get along in life, and with others, as well as they can. What makes them unique is the way they challenge the traditionally-held beliefs about our interactions, attaining success and the nature of organizational relationships; what they reflect is quite contrary to the views of the status quo:
* We have more influence when we listen than when we tell;
* Profound change comes from a feeling of safety, not from fear;
* We are stronger when we are vulnerable;
* Even when we are effective, we doubt ourselves;
* Our strength is our weakness;
* Less is more;
* Our strength comes through serving, not through dominating;
* We correct better through grace than through confrontation;
* We gain respect not by demanding it, but by giving it;
* We learn by talking, not just by listening;
* With people, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line;
* The hard stuff is the soft stuff;
* Sometimes we have to get it wrong to get it right;
* A full life is achieved not by grasping but by giving.
What Edmunson learned from his own leadership experiences was that a willingness to see things from a very different perspective often generated some very different answers to life’s issues. The value in his observations lies not in whether one agrees with each of the statements as he wrote them, but that one would invest the time in considering them and discovering perhaps new meanings imbedded within them. (Life itself is paradoxical in nature: in fact, Edmunson’s own greatest paradox was revealed through the writing of his book, at a time in his life when a neurological disease had robbed him of his ability to speak or even move.) It seems as though our circumstances can sometimes create dramatically new solutions to the “castle walls” we seek to climb.
Much of what we think we know to be true is actually something less than that; there are few immutable truths to which we can cling for comfort. Elements of tradition, history, culture, politics, religion and family heritage tend to shape what we believe as much as actual truth does. Perhaps that’s the reason for so many paradoxical situations in which we find ourselves. We cling to ideas that we have gathered along the way, worldviews that we have grown up to embrace, perspectives that we hold because “they have always been that way.” These eventually feed and complicate the paradoxes we face. But recognizing the paradoxical presence in our lives should give us some degree of confidence in resolving these seemingly impossible quandries. They may be little more than everyday realities which beg for a fresh look, an engaged mind, and an open heart in order to achieve a new resolution.
Solving The Castle Paradox: encouragingly simple and maddeningly problematic….
The truth. It has become a suspect commodity these days, I’m afraid. In today’s news alone, I have heard these events presented in national media reports: a prominent U.S. congressional representative claims, without any known foundation in fact, that one of her colleagues, a Muslim, has ties with a radical political group in the Middles East; a well-known television commentator, latching onto the assertion, characterizes the Muslim Congressman as “the Mafia hit man;” a deranged graduate student in Colorado enters a movie theater and shoots scores of patrons; the statue of a long-revered university sports coach is removed from its central place of honor on campus following allegations of impropriety and deliberate cover-up; Norway observes the one-year anniversary of an attack by a man claiming that multiculturalism in that country warranted the deaths of 77 innocent people. The list could go on, endless in its length as well as its variety. And what all of these topics share in common is that the central tenet in each of these cases is “truth.” Each primary actor in the stories mentioned above acted according to his/her version of the truth. It’s a scary realization.
Each of us is a product of the genetics, experiences, education, socialization and myths of our own lives. Our makeup is determined by that with which we were born and that which we have encountered along the way of life. And since no two people can be said to be precisely alike as related to both their genetics and experiences, it should be no surprise that we all experience the world in different ways. Our perspectives are necessarily different, even if only in seemingly slight ways, because the combination of elements which inform us is different.
These differences are gifts, making up the incredibly rich and magnificent diversity of the human experience. They drive our curiosity, fuel an insatiable need to understand our existence at both a molecular and an existential level, prompt our visions of what the future can be. But they’re also a burden, as when one truth conflicts with another truth, and the respective believers cannot be reconciled. Ironically, all too often such an impasse leads to conflict wherein “truth,” or someone’s version of it, becomes used as a weapon. Truth can move from being a virtue to a destructive force, tearing at the fabric of someone else’s truth. It does not have to be in the context of headline-generating issues, but can be found in the every-day matters of our lives.
By definition, then, we can never capture an absolute truth. No one has a monopoly on the truth, or even an absolute advantage in discerning it. Not the United States. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Not Nicaragua. Not Christians nor Muslims nor Jews. Not the wealthy, not the poor. We are all subject to the evolution of what we perceive as the truth, and that process is as dynamic as the forces which shape our realities. The best that we can do is to continually strive to sharpen the perceptions and understandings which make up our truth, within the context of what others experience as true. It’s our calling as human beings. And when our respective truths collide, that collision is a signal that neither view is completely accurate and there is good reason to go looking for yet another iteration. In that evolutionary process, anyone claiming to own the absolute truth is devoid of the strength, persistence and credibility needed for discovery of what is true.
None of this is to suggest that the purported “truths” of mudslinging politicians, self-serving pundits, crazed murderers or egomaniacal sports figures bear any likeness to reality or that such pontificants have any basis to be excused. Each represents an egregious lack of decency in hijacking and distorting any semblance of truth; sometimes truth is deliberately warped for personal aggrandizement. But even as we condemn the actions of such distorters of the truth, we need to perform our own self-examination of the poisons, misrepresentations, biases and hatreds that drive our personal versions of the truth. It’s nothing less than what we do in examining our physical selves for signs of disease, in search of healing and wholeness. None of us can ever be as well as we can be, as long as others are not well. Likewise, none of us will ever know the whole truth and nothing but the truth, without trying to know the truths of others….