“If you are really going to be free, you have to overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., as quoted by Andrew Young in the documentary “King in the Wilderness”
Most people on this earth live on the edge of an abyss. Life is a daily struggle to stay alive, to acquire enough to eat and drink, rudimentary health care, housing, and protection from murderous government forces, their various death-squads, and their economic vultures. The gap between the rich and poor, while always great, has grown even more obscenely vast, and lies at the core of what so many face daily. Their perilous conditions are sustained by imperial nations, led by the United States, who, together with its minions, buy and bribe and butcher overtly and covertly all around the world. The love of wealth and the fear of death drive these power-mad marauders and divert the gazes of their citizens from the slaughter. It’s an old story.
If you are reading this, I am probably not telling you anything new. You know this, as do I, as I sit safely behind a screened-in table on a beautiful spring day in the hills of western Massachusetts. I have had some soup and bread for lunch and there are no bombers overhead or death-squads cruising the roads here. While my family and I live a simple life, compared to the world’s poor and persecuted, we are privileged. One does not have to be rich to be privileged. The advantages granted to those like me who can securely sit and pen words about the fate of the poor and persecuted victims of my country’s endless violence weighs heavy on my conscience, as they have done since I was young.
I am ashamed to say that in the early morning of May 1, as I lay in bed musing, I thought I would like to stay in bed all day, a depressed feeling that I had never had before. Discouragement enveloped me: I was being forced out of my teaching job; I felt that my dissident writing and teaching made no difference in a world where injustice and violence are endemic and without end; and the forces of evil seemed to be triumphing everywhere. Self-pity mixed with an angry sadness that disgusted me. I disgusted myself. So I jumped out of bed and prepared to go and teach some of my last classes. But I was lost in gloom as I drove along the winding roads.
When I arrived at the college and checked my mail, there was a package waiting for me. It was a review copy of the poet Carolyn Forché’s startling new memoir (What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance) about her youthful transformative experiences in El Salvador in the late 1970s as U.S. trained and supported death-squads brutally murdered poor peasants and priests, and guerrilla resistance was growing prior to the outbreak of civil war. I opened the book to the epigraph, which reads:
Hope also nourishes us. Not the hope of fools. The other kind. Hope, when everything is clear.
The quotation is from the Salvadorian writer Manlio Argueta, whose deeply moving novel, One Day of Life (1980), banned by the Salvadorian government, takes the reader through one terrifying and bloodstained day in the life of peasants struggling to stay alive as they are tortured and slaughtered with impunity. We hear the voices of the poor tell a story of the growth of conscience (“God is conscience. And conscience is we, the ones forgotten now, the poor.”), the discovery of rights, and the awareness of exploitation. Despite the terrifying evil that pervades this book – now considered one of the greatest Latin American novels of the 20th century – there is a luminous spirit of hope and resistance that miraculously prevails that is passed on from person to person despite death, torture, and immense suffering. Argueta fulfills the words of the tortured Jose to Lupe: “Don’t worry, if those of us with understanding failed to act, we would all be in real trouble.”
I remembered that I had reviewed this book in the early 1980s at a time when 100 or more very poor campesinos were being murdered every week, a few years after Archbishop Oscar Romero, the courageous defender of the poor who spoke out against the killers, had been gunned down while saying Mass. The Roman Catholic Church has subsequently declared him a saint.
Yet decades later, despite the extraordinary efforts of awakened souls like Carolyn Forché, it still seems true that Americans can’t visualize, no less believe in or care about, the death and suffering their government is inflicting on innocent people all around the world. Today’s screen culture – I Phone therefore I Am – while seemingly allowing for the visualization of the suffering of the world’s poor, has rendered all reality more abstract and unreal, while inducing a collective hallucination sustained by media and machines that divorces us from flesh and blood, our own and others. All the disembodied data that is daily disgorged through these screens seems to me to have rendered the world disincarnate through the metastasizing of a digital dementia tied to death denial.
I think of Galway Kinnell’s poem, “The Fundamental Project of Technology”:
To de-animalize human mentality, to purge it of obsolete,
Evolutionary characteristics, in particular of death,
Which foreknowledge terrorizes the content of skulls with,
Is the fundamental project of technology; however,
pseudologica fantastica’s mechanisms require:
to establish deathlessness it is necessary to eliminate those who die;
a task attempted when a white light flashed.
Awareness? I sit here looking through the screen that encloses the little porch where my table rests. MLK’s words reverberate in my mind as I watch a grey fox slink across the grass in search of prey. What is it about the love of money and the fear of death that so cripples people’s care and compassion? I know I don’t want to see that fox seize a screaming rabbit and worry (to kill by biting and shaking the throat; strangle) it to death. Unlike Forché, I have not physically seen the dead and mutilated bodies of Salvadorian victims of death squads, nor been threatened by them, as she was. Nevertheless, thanks to her and others like Manlio Argueta, I have seen them in my imagination and heard the screams, and they have haunted me. Ghosts.
But why are some so haunted and others not?
The foreknowledge that terrorizes the contents of skulls, as Kinnell puts it – our ultimate powerlessness – overwhelms humans from childhood unless they can find a way forward that discovers power in powerlessness. When one’s “well-being” is dependent on the death of others, as is the case for most Americans and others in the so-called first world, people tend to repress the terror of death by building various types of culturally induced defenses that allow them to shakily believe they are in control of life and death. One’s natural impotence is then hidden within what Ernest Becker called “the vital lie of character,” and in what, by extension, is the lie of American character that rests on money and military might. One lives within the manageable cultural world that helps blot out existential awareness by offering various social games, agreed forms of “madness” that narcotize. One learns to adjust, to use all sorts of techniques to blot out the awareness that each of us is essentially exposed and mortal, flesh and blood. The aim is clearly to cut life down to manageable proportions, domesticate terror, and learn to think we are captains of our fate. Inevitably, however, not all these social “tricks” work equally well. Life’s terrors have a way of breaking through to dim awareness, and therefore more drastic measures are needed. So after having lived the cultural lie uncritically, one tries to blot out awareness itself. If shopping to forget doesn’t work, if obsessive work doesn’t do it, one turns to drugs or drink, anything to forget, anything to assuage our fears, anything to deny our need for courage. Anything to help us refuse the truth that our lives are built on the blood of others.
The ineluctable reality of uncertainty is our fate. I have always known that, but I forget. I have also long known that we live by faith of one kind or another, and whatever name we give it, it is by faith we enter into the holy mystery of existence. We are carried forward by the spirit that binds us in solidarity to all human struggles for freedom and dignity, for bread and justice. The day I wished to stay in bed and wallow in self-pity and depression came as a shock to me. It revealed to me my hubris, my sense of self-importance, as if my efforts were not just a drop in the sea, seeds scattered that may or may not take root. I was afraid to accept possible defeat, despite my best efforts. I was afraid of death and lacked courage. Like those I criticize for turning their faces away from the suffering faces of America’s victims, I lost my courage that morning in bed. And hope.
But later that day I would awaken and see through the screen of my self-importance when I leafed through Carolyn Forché’s book and chanced upon her quoting Fr. Romero’s words: “We must hope without hoping. We must hope when we have no hope.”
Then her poem, “Ourselves or Nothing,” bubbled up in memory:
There is a cyclone fence between
Ourselves and the slaughter and behind it
We hover in a calm protected world like
Netted fish, exactly like netted fish.
It is either the beginning or the end
Of the world, and the choice is ourselves or nothing.<
Priest and poet reminding us to fight lucidly on. Hope when everything is clear.
10 thoughts on “Looking Through the Screen at the World’s Suffering”
Thank you Ed. As always your writing speaks to my emotions and my intellect. I need to tell you that your class room lessons and your writings are with me every day. Some days I wish I never listened. Those days are rare, though. The truths you shared with this student help me grow in some way nearly every day. Even during the times, since graduation, that I was so depressed and grieving for the losses that inevitably come about from personal growth.Your dissident writings and your passion and intellect in the classroom sustain me and have gradually lead me back to the faith I lost. I see your writings as the truth you continue to share with people, even if they don’t choose to listen. I don’t consider the truth to be dissident. So thanks again for another thoughtful and moving essay. It actually gave me an upsurge of joy and hope, very rare feelings for me. Happy Spring!
Happy Spring to you, Donna. It seems like yesterday we were in the classroom together. You always made the best comments and asked the deepest questions, from which I learned a lot. Ed
Thank you, Ed, thank you. I finally found the energy this morning to sit down and read through some internet posts. I read yours first and lost all desire to surf around for other analyses and opinions. Right now, I want only to let your words sink in, to ponder, to pray. Schweitzer said that when hope has lost the battle in the mind, the only appeal is to the human spirit, where hope beyond hope mysteriously springs into existence–sort of like a quark emerging from a field of possibility, the observation of it, the AWARENESS, turning the virtual into the actual. Your words brought his to mind, but the strained analogy to particle physics is solely on me.
Without detracting in the slightest from the beauty and power of your words, let me offer an observation which you taught me to make. We call ourselves “privileged” in contrast to those who face relentless, oppressive fear and suffering. Yet you’ve also warned us about certain words and phrases that implicitly reinforce the neoliberal narrative behind so much of this evil (9/11, the emergency help number, being a prime example). I suggest that the word “privilege” may also serve subtly to bolster the neoliberal narrative. Is it a privilege, should it be considered a privilege, to be spared the agony of being crushed under the neoliberal boot?
Is a normal human life, with its share of both joy and sorrow, to be considered something exceptional, something only to be experienced by a privileged elite? Are we really talking about a privilege here at all, or rather about sacred, elemental, universal human RIGHTS of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Perhaps we can find a better word to make the distinction between the fortunate few and the unfortunate many, to express our gratitude for being among the former, and, yes, our regret or guilt for not doing more about the latter.
Newton, thanks. You have me thinking about my use of the word “privilege.” I see your point, which is a good one. Fortunate? Lucky? Help me with this one. Ed
Ed, I’ve been mulling over your request for an alternative term to “privileged.” I’m glad that you also sense the unintended bolstering of the neoliberal narrative when this terminology is used. I prefer your proposed idea of “fortunate/unfortunate,” with the caveat that although it captures the pure happenstance of being born into or coming to occupy either position, it also may implicitly and faintly let the oppressors off the hook.
Do the oppressed become so only by a roll of the dice, as opposed to being intentionally targeted and victimized? THEY obviously have no say in the matter, but others, the oppressors, certainly do. Yet this distinction between the fortunate and the unfortunate may be the best we can come up with in light of the complexity, ambiguity, and nuance of language, at least of the English tongue.
Speaking theologically, a language we both appreciate, I would suggest that humanity falls roughly into four categories. There are the crucified, the crucifiers, the oblivious, and the witnesses. The first and third of these categories would seem to encompass the vast majority of us–those unfortunate enough to be crucified vs. those fortunate enough to be oblivious. While the number of the crucifiers are relatively small, their power over others is terrifyingly great.
It is the last, smaller category, the witnesses, who surely constitute most of your audience–those who are aware of the crucifixions, troubled by them, haunted by them, and yet refuse to look away. Instead, they choose to talk about the crucifixions, dwell upon them, to whomever will listen and, although often only occasionally or halfheartedly, try to do something in some way to stop them.
That’s the best I can do right now, so let me hasten to thank you for your most recent post about an extraordinary witness and how her act of witnessing is an invitation to all of us to more fully open our eyes and hearts. You, too, my friend, have chosen to live the life of a witness, a voice of compassion and conscience in this savage neoliberal wilderness. And I know you will never give up while you have breath to speak.
Newton, I like your theological categories; they make sense. My first graduate training and college teaching was in theology, and sociology followed as a complement. Art, philosophy, etc. – it’s all connected. May I “borrow” your terms? You’re right, I will never give up, as I’m sure you won’t. Ed
If anything I say is of use to you and your work, Ed, by all means borrow away, make it your own, as I have done with so much of what you have said/given to us.
Thanks Ed. You are not alone. But you know that. Still, it helps to know others are engaged in this struggle to see and to feel and somehow act and thus to “be” in some meaningful way. My wife Annie came across the article linked below last night. I read it and clicked the link to the paper on climate and societal collapse by Jem Bendell that the article was a response to – which led me then to a website Bendell created after the large positive response he received for daring to talk openly about his encounter disillusionment and despair regarding our collective denial in response to the dire nature of our situation. By finally putting his “professional” pose behind him and facing the darkness and the abyss he has been of course roundly castigated by colleagues and other professionals in the field of ecology and sustainability for not showing the proper “hope,” regarding our human prospects, and for daring to speak of unfolding climate realities that might, simply by their being voiced, “rob people of hope.” I spent a good deal of time reading on Mr. Bedell’s blog site yesterday and find a strange but very real comfort in his willingness to look at and speak to the actual world we live in, rather than the fantasy world of illusions that occupy so many. This is of course the same reason I so deeply appreciate your work Ed.
Gary, I’ll check out his site. Thanks for the tip. It’s all connected, isn’t it. Thanks, Ed
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