The Spiritual Discipline of Attendance
This week's UPI column
So There I was...
Driving from my house, on a busy Monday morning. My “To Do” list was stacked like planes coming into O’Hare. My head was in air traffic control mode, oblivious to all but the blips on my personal radar.
I slowed to a not-quite-full-legal stop at the corner of My Street and Major Arterial. The bank was cleared for landing and the post-office was on final approach. Then that still small voice I have learned to listen to piped up with an urgent request.
“Peggy, could you please attend to the train coming into Grand Central Station on track number 4 ? – it’s coming in a little fast.”
I applied full brake and looked about. All seemed normal in the sleepy residential neighborhood. Then I saw her: the little choo-choo on track number 4. She was about 2 years old – maybe – riding a big wheel along Major Arterial. She was blonde, female – probably - and peddling along at good speed, about a block and a half away. With no adult anywhere in sight! I parked. She peddled towards me, crossed the next side street at below bumper height, and kept coming. She never looked sideways or back. I got out and met her on the sidewalk. She applied her Fred Flintstones and came to a stop at my toes.
She looked up at me and put her thumb in her mouth – not even two, I decided.
“Baby, where’s mommy?”
Tot unplugged thumb and looked over her shoulder.
“Let’s go find mommy, ok?”
“Otay” she chirped.
Executing a crisp three-point Big Wheel turn, Cindy Lou Who applied speed and proceeded in the direction of her origin. I followed at a brisk walking pace.
We went three full city blocks, crossing two side streets, this time with me as crossing guard, and then she made a right turn. I was about to call 911 when a door opened at the end of the block and a blonde woman popped out her head and called “Haley?”
I continued to Haley’s house. I informed mom of where I had contacted Haley. Mom thanked me and was about to start scolding Haley. As a card-carrying member and journeywoman of the International Union of Mothers, I felt the need to interrupt and make the lesson explicit.
“ I could have as easily picker her up and put her in my car.” I said gently
Mom looked a little stunned.
“It’s not Haley’s job to keep Haley safe” I said even more gently.
Mom scooped Haley up in her arms and nodded.
“Have a good day. Bye, Haley”
“Bye-Bye” chirped the tot
I returned to my car and to my radar.
This was not an unusual occurrence in my life. My children could tell you how young they were when they noticed that their mother seemed to be ‘on call’ to the universe. My therapist might tell you that I have rescuing tendencies. I prefer to say that I practice the Spiritual Discipline of Attendance. The Biblical Mandate for this is the story Jesus told about the guy in the ditch. Of course, it is more formally known as” The Story of the Guy who Helped the Guy in the Ditch.” - but you know the story. It’s all about looking off your own radar and showing up where you are needed when you are needed and then taking action.
Here are the requirements of the Spiritual Discipline of Attendance:
You must attend.
You must be able to be present and mindful; aware of your surroundings. You must be able to observe without seeking to simply fit what you observe into your ready made boxes.
You must attend at two levels.
You must be able to have one ear and eye on the world and one ear and eye on the Divine. You must be willing to take input from the Divine. This is what makes it a spiritual discipline and not merely paying attention – which is not a bad thing – but is different.
You must attend with the expectation of use.
You must show up for life willing to take action. You accept the fact that in any given situation you may be the person most capable of attendance.
You must attend without fear.
Sometimes all you have to offer is a non-anxious presence. Sometimes you may be called upon to be resilient in the face of actual threat. Fear kills love and a lot of other things.
You must attend with hope.
Ditch people can’t always dredge up their own. You must carry a supply of this at all times.
You must attend with Faith
(see above) Sometimes people have to be able to believe in you before they can believe in anything else. It takes courage and integrity to put yourself out there. If you try and attend without faith in yourself, and in a Greater Power than yourself, You will incinerate quickly.
You must attend with Love
(see above) It is advisable to carry as much of this as possible, and to stock up at every opportunity. You cannot top the tank too often.
You must attend without entanglement.
You must have a healthy sense of self in order to keep yourself out of the ditch. Never think that you are too cool to fall into a ditch. Ditches are sneaky. You must not attempt to do for people what they can and should do for themselves. The guy who helped the guy in the ditch was able to do some very personal attendance, and then he delegated.
Now, finally, to make the lesson explicit. This is not an optional discipline. Evil also attends; with diligence and willingness. Evil carries a stockpile of strife, malice and despair. Evil wants you to think that it is bold and fearless, but Evil is actually reckless out of necessity because Evil is afraid, very, very afraid. Afraid, among other things, that we will all learn to attend.
(The story of the guy who helped the guy in the ditch is found in the book of Luke the 10th chapter of the Christian New Testament)
Back from the women's Conference
Here is the link for my post on convergence.
the promised references are now in the post below.
Women who are on this blog for the first time and heard about it at the conference
please click on the "comments" and say Hi. This will also be good practice for
participating in the Quaker blogosphere.
THIS is the post that started it all by Robin Mohr, San Francisco Monthly Meeting.
You will see in the 19 comments that you can follow links to names or posts. This will take you to a lot of interesting places.
Robin will have an article on convergence in the Fall issue of Friends journal
C. Wess Daniels is a doctoral student at Fuller. He is from EFI, eastern region in Here You can read Wess' article on convergence in Quaker Life.
Here is a post by an EFI friend reacting fairly negatively to convergence - then read her update and the comments! Thsi post in on Xanga another free place on the web to have a blog.
This is the references for my chat about convergence at the women's conference.
The essential reference for those who want to be part of the Quaker conversation on the web is
Quakerquaker.org. Facilitated by Martin Kelly of FCG, sometimes known as the blogfather, and a group of readers. If you can bookmark this site and look at it once a week you can get a general overview of the best of the quaker converstion on line.
I do not know how many Quaker bloggers there are - probably hundreds. Martin has written a subjective guide to quaker blogs that I think is good. His "essential blogs" list on the right hand column of this page is good to my thinking. I follow about 45 blogs.
I would suggest that you start by looking at Quakerquaker, then start making comments here and there. A lot of the best converstion goes on in the comments section, but you can't see the comments unless you go to the actual blog site by clicking on the title.
If you want to get into the conversation in a big way write your own blog! Start at Blogger.com and following their instructions set one up using their templates. Many of the prettier sites have been set up by people who can write code. You may know a young and/or smart person who can do this. This is free.
If you want to keep a list of your own favorite blogs you can use bloglines.com. this is also a free service that allows you to put blogs on a list which you look at and can see who has a new post. This is what I do. In the morning over coffee I look at my list - if I am short for time I just read one or two. If I can linger I read more. I find it more edifying than excessive news surfing.
How I know that God is not a Quaker
To my observation God does not seem real invested in simplicity.
God does seem to care about justice and is against hoarding.
God does seem invested in me telling the simple truth.
But the work of God that I try to be engaged in 24/7
is messy, bloody, connvoluted, and often obscure.
My "paper" - Read up from the two posts below
All You need is love – Paul, the Beatle
Actually, You need some other stuff too – Paul, the Apostle
A reflection paper
For the Northwest Quaker Women’s Theological Conference
Summer 2006 – Peggy Senger Parsons
(references all from the Epistle to the Ephesians)
[It occurs to me that if the conference text is one phrase, not even on sentence, of a long letter, it probably behooves us to look at the context - the whole letter– here is my attempt - psp]
So there is Paul, sitting in a prison in Rome, (3.1) waiting to be sentenced by Nero, and the folks are worried. Natch – Nero is supremely nuts, and crazy evil, and whimmy as all get out, and mostly omnipotent. Paul has a guy name Tychicus take notes and deliver a set of letters to the churches. Ephesus was a church Paul personally founded – He spent three years there. They knew him, and cared. Paul whips off a personal letter for his friend Philemon, and deals with a problem at Colosse, and then sits down to a general letter to the folks at Ephesus with the understanding that it will be passed around to all the churches.
What do you say when you know there is a good chance that it will be your last word? You encourage them, tell them you love them, that YOU pray for THEM - Worried? Who Me? (1.15-17). Then if you are a teacher you review everything you said before (2).
Kids – really, don’t worry about me (3.13) the outcome of this whole project is not dependent on what happens to me. I did my part in getting you guys together – what a job that was! Nobody could have seen that coming – once bitter enemies and religious rivals and now a community of Peace!
Truly, you amaze me!
And you have made a whole new thing we are calling a ‘church’ – not another religious institution, another set of rules and rulers, rituals and sacrifices, but a community, a kingdom not of this world; that is built on freedom, and immediate access to God, and Confidence, and above all, Love! (3.12) There was a time when you didn’t know that such a conversation with God and such a community was possible, remember?
Now it is your every day life.
How cool is that?
So, not to put pressure on you, but it’s your deal now. And don’t freak out, but I am going to tell you the actual purpose of this thing. It is not to beat the Romans, or to have the “I told you so” to the Jews” these guys are not your problem. The point of a convergent church built on Love by previous enemies is to make a splash in the spiritual world – you have the power to impress people you don’t even know exist. (3.10)
There are whole dimensions to this universe that you don’t see; but you are working there, none the less.
I know, it’s weird, but it’s true!
So that is why you have to be founded on the Love of Christ –
He’s been there, and is there, and knows what is going on. Trust Him.
I am begging God to give you the strength to make your foundation Love and nothing else, and then to build on that straight up to the heavens. (3.14)
I want you to know this by experience, not rote belief. It is one thing to be taught that two plus two is four – it is another to find out that your beloved is carrying twins! That is experiential math! (3.17)
The result of this is unity!, believe me, your hearts will find that there is a million facets to the one truth (4.3-6).
This is a huge calling - Walk Worthy of it (4.1)
(hmm there’s a book title in that I think).
Now here are the nuts and bolts:
You are not going to have time for anger or revenge (4.26)
You can’t dissipate or debauch too much (5)
You can’t afford apathy (4.19)
These things will make you completely ineffective.
You can’t afford to lay down you integrity (4.25,28)
It is your most important tool.
There will be no time for power struggles (5,6)
And, sorry to say it, but you better be armed to the teeth, (6.11) because this will not be accomplished without a fight.
But this is very important, the enemies are not human – don’t be confused by that – this is spiritual stuff!
And Last and MOST important PRAY – a lot – I mean it – like, all the time.
If you disconnect you are screwed.
No matter what happens to me. Keep the peace.
And you know they pulled it off for about 140 years. Then came Constantine, and they forgot all about these good instructions, and things went downhill fast – and have slid to this day.
But Fox and Fell and company tried to pull a rag tag bunch of misfits together to knock down the rotten house and rebuild on the foundation.
They had their day.
Then Friends forgot again.
The cool thing is that linear time doesn’t matter much, and quantity of spiritual disasters is not the measure.
Every time each one of us scrapes our life back down to the foundation of Love and builds according to this plan – we make an immortal immaterial temple for the living God.
And when we get together with people who we are not supposed to get along with and build this community, it gets noticed – maybe not so much in this dimension, but the Cosmos hushes to hear our subversive peace.
Keep it up!
"I pray that you,
being rooted and grounded
in love, may,
together with all the saints,
be able to grasp how
wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ."
Paul's letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3, vss 17-19
"[It is ]
our traditional Quaker knowledge that
we are all one in the loving Spirit of God, with unique parts to play
as we work together, not only in particular projects but in continuing co-creation
with God's work in the world – whether to bring us together with the divine,
with one another, or with the creation,
which turn out to be facets of the same reconciliation."
Listening Spirituality, Vol. I
Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference
Next week about 60 North Pacific YM, Northwest YM, and Freedom Friends Church Women will gather for the at least the 6th PNWQWTC. It's a wonderful time, but I for one have always thought the name was a little too big for it - when the intials could be a phone number, you have too many words.
These are really narrative theology gatherings. They were an outgrowth of the Multwood Group a cross-yearly meeting women's group that has met mostly monthly in Portland oregon since the mid-80's. I knew about them in the mid-nineties when I was invoted to join Multwood, but as I have a long-standing allergy to women's conferences I excaped the pressure to attend until 200. Then I repented - wouldn't miss one now. I imagine that the women who have attended at least one of these gatherings must now be in the many hundreds. I have built relationships at these gatherings that will last a lifetime. This year one of my daughters will attend for the first time. Freedom Friends is sending 12 women.
Part of the preparation for these things is the writing of "Papers" - again, much too big a term for what is often a paragraph of introduction - and sometimes becomes a page or two of reflection. We are asked to look at two quotes and respond to them. We often ignore the assignment. The Quotes usually come one from Scripture and one from a Quaker of note. These 'papers' are sent out in advance and they do actually jumpstart community as you spend the time connecting faces and voices to writing. We are asked not to share anyone elses writing without their permission. Many women write personally, and not for the general public. But I see no ban in the rules to airing my own paper - even in public. If I get read out of the gathering for this, so be it. I do not know if I will be the only blogger in attendance (Alivia Biko will be there) but I invite anyone reading this who has written a paper to share it on your own blog or on this blog as a guest blogger - send it to me, or put in the comments that I can post it, and I will put it up. I will be speaking at a plenary on the topic of Convergent Friends, Bloggers, and other Dangerous Quakers.
The pictures below are of groundbreaking outside of Gitega for the new THARS general offices. The government of Burundi granted THARS this land with the condition that they build on it within one year. While David Niyonzima was here he raised enough funds to start a building. What you see here are the architects and local women hired to do the sod breaking and ground prep. I see several of the widows from my class in these pictures. One of the interventions that THARS did for these women was to give them a locking closet at their office for their hoes. If you have a hoe you can work, but if anyone can steal your hoe with impunity you will not work long. The Intervention of a safe nighttime storage place was life-saving for some of these women and their children. It is good to see their faces. I wish I was there to raise a hoe with them.
The Widows of Gitega
Today's UPI Column
So There I was...
up country, in Gitega, Burundi’s second largest city; fall 2003. It’s a little wild up there. One of the “suburbs” had their new precinct captain assassinated on his third day of office while I was there. Some say the rebels did it, others say that it was his predecessor. They put up a replacement and he lasted one day before being killed. They couldn’t find anyone else willing to take the office - big surprise!
I was speaking at a conference called “Let’s Unite to Stop the Violence Against Widows!” The Group I was working for, Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services of Burundi was sponsoring this event at a catholic retreat house. There were 30 women invited, all widows, young to old, one pregnant and 6 with nursing babies.In Burundi the widow is very near to the bottom of the power ladder. The only people lower are street children. Widows have no protection, legal or physical. You can steal from the widow, or rape the widow with impunity. Because the widow cannot afford bribes, she rarely has recourse to law. Impoverished, her own family does not want her back, and if she speaks to a man who is married, she is suspected of planning to steal a husband, so her married friends turn against her too. Often her biggest problems come from her former in-laws who want the house or land back, and are willing to push the children of their dead son or brother into the street to get it.So I was there from far off planet America to speak to the condition of these women.
I was asked to talk to them about women’s rights!They came in their best – wrapped in color – one yardage for a skirt and another around the shoulders. I was told that most of them borrowed the clothes. Some of them even have shoes - plastic slippers we would call flip flops. For them this was the best three day vacation of their lives; the austere catholic hostel - the Ritz; the food, the best they have eaten in a long time. This was the first intervention, just to pull them up out of grinding poverty for a few days.The second intervention was that they were invited to a conference. In Burundi only important people go to conferences, and only the rich attend any kind of schooling in adulthood. They told all their neighbors and relatives that they were attending this event, and it raised their prestige. The gift of a notebook and a pen is significant, especially since only seven of them read or write, but just owning paper and a pen makes you special. Their stay was paid for, and they were given a small “transportation” allowance. When they were given this stipend at the end of the second day, they held an impromptu dance. I didn’t believe that a single one of them would use the allowance for a bus ride home. They would walk home, however far that was, with their babies on their backs and the stipend would buy food and pay the small but impossible school fees for one of their other children. And some of those children would have a notebook and a pen.The babies nursed, and the babies cried. The babies made puddles on the floor like puppies. Sometimes the mother mopped up the puddle with the baby’s blanket and then wrapped the baby back up in it - sometimes they don’t bother. The day was hot and dry; it took about thirty minutes for a baby puddle to evaporate. Most of the babies looked healthy. They were happy because their mothers were happy. They did not yet know that they have been born into the lowest position in one of the least developed countries in the world. I was looking at the bottom of the world totem pole. I was sad, they laughed.We opened the sessions. My translator, Felicite, started with an exercise that we would call an icebreaker. She had each of them stand and say their own name, and then repeat the name of each previous woman, going around in a circle. That was clearly a thing they had never done before. They were shy, hiding in their shawls, putting their hands over their mouths, whispering. This did not go unchallenged. “Stand up, speak loudly!” she encouraged them. And then one by one they stood, and spoke their own name out loud, and other women listened, and tried to remember. They said “I am ME,” and then they affirmed that “You are YOU” and “WE are US.” And suddenly the activity took on real power.Then I was on. They were clearly fascinated with me, but a little skeptical. I told them the story of my grandmother and how she became widowed by the influenza epidemic in 1918. How she managed to raise her three boys on her own in the great depression. I told them that a hundred years ago in the US, the plight of the widow was not much better than their own, but that things had improved as social reforms were made, and women started to vote, and fought for their rights. Then I outlined for them the universal rights of women as designated by the Beijing Women’s Accord. I told them that this was what all women of the world hope for. They were amazed to find out that their legal rights in Burundi are better than women’s rights in some countries. They can own property, they can vote, they can worship as they see fit, and change their religion if they please. Their rights may not be respected or enforced, but at least they exist, and can be fought for. They found out that a rich Saudi woman might be less free in some ways than a poor Burundian. But we all know that they would change places if they could.When I told them they have a right to the physical integrity of their own bodies, they look confused. I clarified.
“You have the right not to be raped or beaten.”
A hand is raised.
“Not raped or beaten by soldiers?” the woman asked.
“Not beaten or raped by anyone!” I said.
“Not even husbands.”
There was silence, and then they laughed, loud and long – this was the funniest thing they had heard in a long time. Most of these women would be glad to have a husband - even one who raped and beat.Over the course of the next two days, we ate together, and talked together, and played with the babies. On our third morning we were displaced by a group of Burundi government ministers who wanted to our room on short notice. We were women, so of course we are displaced. We were sent to another part of the grounds. It is a little more than two miles away. I had a car and a driver, but it was a nice cool morning and I decided to walk with the women. So in my high heels, I led the parade of colorful women up the badly rutted dirt road. The arriving ministers sped by us in their SUV’s, covering us with their dust. The new room was actually nicer than the old one. The babies peed on the archbishop’s floor too. But lunch was served back at the first place. So after a morning of teaching, with an afternoon to go, I measured my strength and took the car to lunch, while the women walked. This did not feel very good to me, but I knew without a doubt that they were stronger than I. Even the ones who had AIDS or malaria could outwalk me with a load on their head and a baby on their back. I felt wimpy.We were supposed to get our room back for the afternoon, but the ministers were slow to leave. We sat and watched them depart. One very important guy’s off-brand Asian SUV wouldn’t start. We sat around and watched as the men tried to push start it, and jump-start it and didn’t have much luck. I explained to the women that this brand is known to suck, and that this minister should have held out for the Toyota like the other minister’s. The women laughed. I am pretty sure that the minister understood my English as well as the translation. He was not enjoying being laughed at by widows, but since they were beneath his notice, he could not notice. He was also not sure who the white woman was, so he ignored us. God has such a funny way of balancing the books some days.I decided that the ministers' slowness should not rob these women of their teaching time so we gathered in the shade of a tree. I was taking questions, and teaching about how to talk to your children about difficult things; things like death, AIDS, rape, war, ethnicity and poverty. My translator got a little nervous with my answer to a question about how to tell you children that soldiers had killed their father. The soldiers of the ministers, with their automatic rifles, are still only a few feet away from us. She asked me to go to the next question. I protested that we are only telling the simple truth about everyday reality. She pointed out that in Burundi the simple truth could get a person killed. We changed the subject.The last of the big men left and we claimed our room. It was time to say goodbye, and the women decided to dance. They started to sing - rhythmic, harmonious, and with joy they took the floor. Their arms sailed, they feet kept the beat. Every part of their bodies moved, as they wove in and around each other, singing. I was sitting at the head table drumming out the beat, enjoying their joy. How could people who have so little, break so quickly into joy? How could women so oppressed break into complete freedom of expression? They sang a song of blessing on their teachers, thanking God for providing us to them. They surrounded us with the dance and with their genuine affection. This became too much for me, and I got up and joined them. The whoops and hollers at the sight of me dancing with them raised the roof. We danced for an hour. Everyone was soaked in sweat; the smell was tremendous, but we were happy.
I thought I had nothing to teach these women. I thought that my world was too far from theirs to cross the barriers. I thought that I would find them broken by their condition. I thought wrong.
(Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services of Burundi can be reached at THARS.org)
HERO OF THE FAITH
HERO of the Faith
is hereby intiated into my motorcycle club
watch this two part video all the way through and be prepared to be inspired.
The Quote I LOVE from the very end
First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they FIGHT you
I am spending part of this week working on a new home for Freedom Friends Church
This was just the dose of perspective that I needed.
Many thanks to the beautiful heresy for this heads up!
Miracles R Us
Today's UPI column
So There I was...
Trying to tell the story of a mystery and a miracle to a group of four year olds. In some ways this is not hard – humans that age are amazing creatures. They have not yet had the cages of reason and impossibility built around their heads. For instance, most preschoolers hold the belief that under the right circumstances a human just might fly without benefit of an airplane. But they also can be literalists of an order that only the most rigid fundamentalist aspire to. They just have other notions of what is literally possible. This makes them fun.
My job, that Sunday morning several decades ago was to tell the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand people with one boy’s lunch of two fish and three biscuits.
I drew from my experience in Christian Education – twenty some years of sitting on the other side of Sunday School. I grew up in a family of storytellers. I also grew up in a church that was very invested in communicating the stories of the Bible to children. I grew up in the first era that tried to speak to children on children’s terms. Consequently I saw Gospel magicians, Gospel clowns and Gospel ventriloquists. Stories always came with pictures usually in “flanelgraph;” a gentle, cozy art form that pre-dated PowerPoint. I was not planning on getting a creepy wooden sidekick, but I did agree that stories that you could hear, see, touch and preferably taste did stick better.
I had this brilliant idea to use the ubiquitous goldfish crackers and little round oyster crackers for the boy’s lunch and to tell the story while acting it out with the kids. I took a linen napkin and stitched a secret pocket into it, which I filled with lots of spare crackers. When the children were all assembled in the circle of tiny chairs, I gave the ‘lunch’ of two goldfish and three oysters to a sweet little girl. I chose her because she was pretty compliant and was most likely to not eat the lunch before the critical moment. I played the part of Jesus and made some of the children disciples and others the multitude. The story proceeded, and I prompted one of the disciples to ask about food for the crowd. We searched for anyone with a lunch and found the girl, who even willingly offered up her lunch – something you would never be able to do with two year olds. I folded this offering into my seemingly empty napkin and prayed over it. Then I stated passing out crackers. When we started around the circle for the second time, a perceptive boy named Tommy sat up and said “HEY”. Then there were lots of big eyes and much amazement. The multitude was fed, the leftovers were gathered up and indeed they turned out to be greater than the original lunch. I finished up the story and sent the tots back to their mommies and dads. I was feeling pretty good. Clearly I had a career ahead of me as an inspirational Sunday School teacher. I went home well satisfied with myself.
Until the phone rang that afternoon. It was Tommy’s mom.
“Peggy, Tommy had a pretty amazing time in Sunday School this morning. He says that teacher Peggy is just like Jesus and can do miracles!”
Yikes.I explained my process. Mommy said;
“We were pretty sure that you hadn’t actually multiplied food, but Tommy will not be dissuaded.”
I promised to clear the whole thing up the next week.
Next Sunday in came all my new disciples, excited, reverent and waiting for today’s miracle. I had my trick napkin there and I carefully explained to the children that I was not really like Jesus, that we were just pretending, and I showed them how it worked. Then I let them play feeding the multitude. Little Tommy did not want to play. He crossed his arms and looked at me with utter disdain. I felt pretty bad.
I felt worse when his mother called again that afternoon.
“Well, Peggy, thanks a lot! Now Tommy says that “Jesus never did any miracles – it was all a trick – teacher Peggy showed us how.”
The transmission of faith is treacherous business. It is not for the faint of heart. Our stories of faith are important. They under gird our lives and our culture. It is our job to get them across. We have to balance inspiration and ignite imagination without inflating to the point of inviting disillusionment.
I have prayed for little Tommy and the other children I taught when I was myself a novice. I hope they settled into a faith in spite of my efforts. They taught me humility. They taught me to weigh my words and methods carefully. I hope that since that day they have met the real Jesus and learned the real lesson of that story.
In God there is no scarcity.
The Unhappiest Place on Earth
Tuesday's UPI column
So There I was...
Deep in the heart of the unhappiest place on Earth; Burundi, Central Africa. Of course I didn’t know it had attained that lowly place when I spent three months there in 2003. I just discovered this fact this last week when I read a report on a meta study of 100 studies of 80,000 people worldwide. This study related self-reported personal satisfaction (happiness) to access to health care, personal income, and access to education. A huge study like this is considered to be pretty reliable. And it turns out that “healthy, wealthy and wise” is positively correlated to happy. 178 nations were then ranked according to happiness, countries presently at war, like Iraq were left out.
It turns out that Disneyland is not the happiest place on Earth, Denmark is. But it is interesting that Copenhagen has that “Little Mermaid” statue in their harbor. Hmmm. It might make an interesting study to correlate good storytelling with happiness.
The US came in at 23 – not the top, but near. I bet they didn’t do this survey in New Orleans - or St. Louis last week.
What surprised me was that tiny Burundi was 178 – the unhappiest country on Earth by report of its own citizens. She slipped in under Zimbabwe (177) – which surprised me because Burundi has a self-determined, not terribly corrupt government. Zimbabwe has dangerous crazy omnipotent guy Robert Mugabe. Unbelievably, Zimbabwe was beat out by the Democratic Republic of Congo (176) where FOUR MILLION people have died in the last ten years from war and war-related disease and malnutrition.. OK – so Burundi has had three waves of genocide in the last 40 years. 300,000 died in 1993/94 alone. But the Congolese are fleeing into Burundi, not the other way around. As for health wealth and education, well, there is not enough of these to go around, anywhere in that part of the world.
But I had those three months in 2003 and I will go back this next winter. I now have many friends and loved ones in Burundi. And some of them are some of the happiest people I know.
I am a mental health worker with a specialty in trauma healing. It was hard for me to find an adult in Burundi who did not have some level of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There were mortar rounds falling on the city I was living in and I was working on my own case. But what amazed me was the lack of clinical depression. It was hard to find a case, except in the expats stationed there in consulates and embassies.
Burundians seem to have irrepressible hope. They are masters of deeply enjoying a good moment sandwiched between difficulty and horror. There is not much to laugh about, but when they laugh, they really laugh.
So I am not going to tell my friends there that they live in the unhappiest place on Earth.
I am not going to tell the old woman who pulled the baby out of the trash heap. The baby’s mother had died of AIDS, the baby may not have had long, but the old woman took the child to her own old dried breasts and nursed him until milk flowed. I was shocked and incredulous at the story and so the woman pulled out a breast and squirted me with milk just to make the other women laugh. We all laughed, including the baby.
I am not going to tell Yoyo James, age 12, who was indignant when I showed him a world map and he saw how tiny Burundi is – the same size as the state of Maryland. He accused the mapmakers of bias and fraud. After all, his country was HUGE – it takes a full day to drive the width of it, that on a good day. Yoyo told me that there was no place in the world that he would rather live.
I am not going to tell the kindergarten students at Kwibuka, who do not know that there play yard is the site of a massacre. They are too little to read the names on the stone. They ran out to greet me, and when I sat down in the dirt to with them they ran their tiny filthy hands through my hair and pockets, curious and larcenous without shame. Let them play.
Things are looking up in Burundi, you see. Up is really the only direction to look. The war is over – mostly – one last rebel group to come in. They have a freely elected president who seems to be sane, good, and not corrupt. May he live to see his freely elected replacement. They do not have a deep bench of living ex-presidents over there. They have recently benefited from Debt relief – Thank-you Mr. Bono and the G8 crew.
Most Burundians don’t know it, but Bill and Melinda and Warren are stalking Malaria, and Malaria had better watch out. The Burundian government recently declared that every child should get a free education. This has made a student/teacher ratio of 200/1, and this without benefit of desks or books or paper or pencils, but it is a start, and fingers in the dust can write their ABC’s.
I have great hopes for the unhappiest place on earth. I can’t wait to get there. I would trade a hundred days at Disneyland, or Copenhagen, for one day in Bujumbura.