January 5, 2005

Only when we take human existence upon ourselves...

The Romero quote that I posted in the Christmas Thoughts thread sparked such great discussion that I thought I'd toss this one out and see what we come up with.

I'm not sure what I think of the quote yet. My initial reaction was to think that he's off his rocker. But Eberhard was a good guy and very thoughtful (I believe his dissertation was on Nietsze), so my second thought was that I shouldn't blow him off so quickly. Here's the quote:

"Only when we take human existence upon ourselves in its starkest and most humiliating misery--a misery in which nothing has meaning--can we win through to the only possible way to live. Only when we taste the lot of all, when we become involved deeply in world suffering, one in heart with the need of humanity, can we win through to our true vocation. Only when the conscience becomes active, only when love is born out of suffering, only when hardship leads to liberating action, is victory near." -- Eberhard Arnold

(I should add that Eberhard was around in the early 1900's. He was forced out of Germany by the Nazis during the second world war. He started a community called the Bruderhof that was an attemp to get back to anabaptist roots (away from the Lutheranism that ruled Germany at the time). The Bruderhof still exists. I've met people from it though I haven't been to one. Whether Eberhard would agree with where the Bruderhof is today would probably be fodder for another discussion.)


  1. Hm. First reaction: rational. What poppycock to imply only those who have truely suffered can truely love. This would leave the complete present day Western Hemisphere loveless.

    Simultaneaous emotional reaction: I think I know what he means. Let's as humans cherish our fellow humans and do (=active involvement) the right thing to make this world a better place. Beautiful idea. So not going to happen.

    Let me chew on this a bit.

  2. Sin is nothing else but the failure to recognize human misery -
    it is unconcious misery. and for that very reason guilty misery.
    Our knowledge of our misery is the only thing about us that is not miserable.
    Human affliction and the abasement to which those it strikes are condemned opens to them the knowledge of human misery, knowledge which is the door, the passage leading to all wisdom.
    Simone Weil

  3. Sin is nothing else but the failure to recognize human misery -
    it is unconcious misery. and for that very reason guilty misery.
    Our knowledge of our misery is the only thing about us that is not miserable.
    Human affliction and the abasement to which those it strikes are condemned opens to them the knowledge of human misery, knowledge which is the door, the passage leading to all wisdom.
    Simone Weil

  4. are you trying to tell me that you don't like my cooking? ;-)

  5. i liked today's quote. (all the quotes i post are from the bruderhof's daily dig).

    Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We cherish our children’s future. We are all mortal. - John F. Kennedy

  6. No I. I plan to live forever or die trying... :)

  7. well if you'd send me a recipe when I ask for one once in a while I might be able to have an opinion about the cream cheese and carrots you're always serving those poor innocent kids of yours.

    (just kidding folks meg is actually a darn good cook and an amazing mom)

  8. We are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside. But one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

  9. I'm still chewing on the Eberhardt quote. I don't agree. I strongly feel that if everyone would take good and honest care of those and that around them, this world would be devoid of stark and humiliating misery.

    But then again, I guess its the snake biting its own tail.

  10. you know, now that i think about it (the eberhard quote) it reminds me of an ursula le guin story (i don't remember the name of it) about a scapegoat -- the city would pick a child and put it in a room by itself. the kid would get no positive human contact, barely enough food, and there was a window near the top of the cell where people could look in and see how miserable the child was. somehow they felt that the kid took on all of the sorrow of the city so no one else would have any.

    i always hated that story. it made my skin crawl. in fact, it was one of the main reasons i stopped reading le guin.

    but that kid taking on the world's misery didn't help anyone.

    even for us to contemplate the depth of the misery of the world doesn't really do much more than lead to depression.

    perhaps a better way of saying what eberhard might be trying to get at is,

    "only when we acknowledge the deep misery in the world, when we are willing to look it in the face rather than to hide away in our comfortable houses ignoring that anything is wrong with the world, only then will we have the first seed of knowledge needed to make a change."

    ... or something like that.

    i feel this way about the sex slave industry. it's something that makes me so sick that i think if i ever Really thought about it i'd cry for days. i can only glance across the top of the issue. but even that is pretty huge. what i'd rather do is ignore that it even exists. i don't want to hear about it. i don't want to know about it. but i've made a conscious decision to learn more, to read what i come across, and to try, as best i can, to face the issue. i still don't know what i can do (beside donate to groups like the International Justice Mission who are dealing with it directly) but i feel like just having the knowledge of it's existance does make a difference. at least, i have hope that that's the case.

  11. i agree but want to add a "but...".

    with today's global society, i think that we can take care of those around us, and still be doing damage to people on the other side of the globe: by buying products that are produced by slave labor or endentured servitude, by supporting agriculture that uses pesticides causing birth defects and cancer among not only workers but those that live near these conventional farms, by ... you get the idea.

    i often wonder how many of my actions have repercussions that i'm completely blind to.

  12. I do get the idea. But those facts would not occur if the people at the other side of the globe were taking good care of eachother and their environment... that's the snake's tail.

  13. There have apparently been psychological experiments that indicate kids who witness violence become willing to commit violence, even when the violence is portrayed as bad. They were still be able to show restraint when the circumstances punished violence, but when the particular example of witnessed violence had a chance of reward (even if the reward was merely empty praise), most of the kids were perfectly willing and able to re-enact the violence in the way they viewed it, even if they were previously trained to understand that the violence was evil.

    I don't see why misery wouldn't be the same way. I think we can understand misery to a large extent simply by witnessing it. I think that there's a very good chance that witnessing misery can even make us miserable as well. Misery might like company, but I don't find it to be admirable to want company in one's misery.

    I think it's more useful for the non-miserable people to be coming from a sense of empowerment. I think it's much easier to help others when one is empowered, and I think it's much easier to accept help from someone who is empowered. (Even if I were in a miserable situation, I would not be comfortable accepting help from one as miserable as or more miserable than myself. If I were in such a miserable situation, I imagine I wouldn't be comfortable with sharing anything I had -- whether it be my misery, my resources, or even my thoughts or love or support.) I think real love (not the petty emotions that the movies portray as "love") is empowering. I think "real" love alone -- without misery and without suffering -- can make the "conscience become active" and "lead to liberating action".

    I think we need a lot more love, not misery, and I question whether this "real" love can be born out of suffering at all. (Lucas made a show of hate being related to suffering... ;-) Since I believe that real love is related to empowerment, it could be that hardship (or, more specifically, the overcoming of hardship) might be an easier-to-comprehend trigger for faith in or realization of real love, but I don't see why we can't learn about real love the way we apparently learn about violence -- by just witnessing lots and lots of it.

  14. I was just thinking whether or not I could invite a dozen random people into my home to share what I had with people who were less fortunate than I. I find that I am not as loving or trusting in this scenario...my thinking becomes highly conditional. Although I might have the physical means to do so (we'd be eating a lot of soup I think :-), emotionally I don't think I could do it unconditionally. I'd make a terrible Mother Theresa.

    While there are a lot of conditions I can think of, probably the most important one does come down to empowerment. Not just of me, but of the people who are in the position of being miserable. They must be empowered to do something about their situation...perhaps it's more of a group effort to move forward that I expect, and people doing what they can to move the enterprise forward.

    There are cases, of course, where the imbalance of power renders whatever efforts the disenfranchised can muster completely impotent. The power of a multinational combine and an inconsiderate marketplace versus people earning an honest living, for example. Coffee growers, Walmart employees, etc. I'm not quite sure what I feel in this situation...to what extent can people be expected to crawl out from a poor position? How much responsibility can they be expected to hold? I think of movies like "The Seven Samurai" (or the US version, "The Magnificent Seven")... the people are better off, at the expense of their saviors. This is not a good situation to be in, if you are the empowered one.

    I feel fortunate to have the education and opportunity that I have. I'm not sure that I should even feel BAD about those who do not, but I do try to help the people in my immediate vicinity who (1) show a sense of responsibility toward their own situation and actions and (2) respect me as an individual, not a resource to be strip mined. I figure that I can't save the world, but I can maybe make my little corner of it better. It gets tricky when conflicts of interest arise...in this case, I have to pick the position that seems less evil from a moral, ethical, and tolerant perspective. Then the challenge is figure out how proactive to be about maintaining that position.

  15. i'm assuming this is the misery that many of us would rather ignore (except in heroic movies -- erin brockovich is another great one that comes to mind) and that arnold wants us to dwell on (i'd say we should at least acknowledge -- that whole dwelling on thing is a bit much in my mind).

    it seems that if many of us were to band together to do something, we could collectively be that empowered one thereby disfusing the cost to us, but still enabling a better life for those on the other end. (we could chanel the force, so to speak -- ok, so that's not what i mean at all, but the picture popped into my head and it seemed to fit so well. ;-) )

  16. That's one reason to find and support companies that do this, Or to start your own company. It's funny...I never made that connection before between "I can't save the world by myself" and "I can join an effort to do so". I guess it's the independence blinders I have (like, I sometimes never think of asking someone for help).

  17. There's still a trade-off. Humans have limited supplies of real love. As the collective gets larger, the "love" gets too "diffused" as well, things start becoming impersonal, they get less efficient, corruption eventually settles in, and in general, the resources lose "empowerment" (so to speak). For example, an immediate family banding to help each other often works very well. Extended families occasionally have a few leeches, but they mostly seem okay. Tribes and communities can be made to work as long as there's enough other similar background holding the collectives together, but it takes effort, and there are more ways for resources to go to waste on the way. Government-level programs are subject to horrible inefficiencies, and a much larger percentage of the resources become mired in bureaucracy and doesn't get where it needs to go. The love and empowerment get removed from the resources, and such an impersonal, empty level of "help" probably creates more problems than it solves. They don't educate the people on how to better their lives. They don't sit down with the individuals who need help and build their skills and confidence so they stand a chance of bettering their situation. They simply throw fish at people, and come the next day, the fish is gone and the people haven't learned anything except how to come back for more fish. In the end, they mostly just bleed resources to superficially salve consciences. I think organized charities/companies are likely to run somewhere between community-level and government-level, depending on how they get their resources.

  18. does it have to be love that we're sharing? it seems more like a responsibility issue when it comes to the global issues. if we are going to do things that affect people thousands of miles away, then the least we can do is make responsible decisions.

    but i can't go to china and see if the widget i buy was made in a safe factory with reasonable treatment of employees that's not pumping toxic waste into the land, water and air. so we need to find and support watch-dogs. or else buy locally made products.

    i feel that the least i can do is be a responsible member of planet earth.

    * * * * *

    the bruderhof's quote of the day was another one along the lines of eberhard's:

    If we want to serve the true God, we must break out of the circle of self-absorption and pay heed to the bloodied faces of our fellow human beings. If we do not share life with the oppressed, we do not share life with God. -- Leonardo Boff

    i agree with the breaking out of the self-absorption part. at the same time, it seems rather arrogant to say that we can share our lives with the oppressed. if we're not truly oppressed ourselves, then aren't we just being condescending?

    i think the bible's response to the plight of the poor and oppressed is a little more even keeled than these quotes: "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

  19. so what solution do you propose, betty?

    what are we to do about the kids down the street throwing rocks at cars?
    what are we to do about the chinese girl born without fingers because her mom worked in a factory with gross environmental neglect that made plastic toys that my kids can buy out of gumball machines?
    what are we to do about the drug dealer next door to our house in SF or about his ex-girlfriend who sells herself on capp street to have enough money for their two daughters?

    isn't doing Something better than doing Nothing? and isn't being aware of it one of the first steps?

    i understand your cynicism. but i believe that there's still something we can do. granted, i don't think we should throw money around blindly. (nor was i advocating that.) but if i'm going to give money to a charity, it will be a charity that is auditted by an outside agency to make sure they're really doing what they say they're doing. and if i find out that company A buys products made by slave labor, then i'm going to buy from company B, at least until i find out that they, too, support slave labor, at which point i'll either give up on the product, or search for a company C that at least Tries to avoid using slave labor.

    i refuse to look away simply because the tide is against me.

  20. I don't have one, but I still hold that we need to stand before we can run. Take care of ourselves first. If we have energy left over, take care of our family and friends. If we have more energy than that, then help the local community, befriend and provide an encouraging role model for the kids a mile down the street. As Cindy said, if it goes recursive, then it all just works out.

    isn't doing Something better than doing Nothing?
    Not necessarily. Like the old woman who swallowed a fly... and then was given a spider to get rid of the fly... and then a bird to get rid of the spider, etc. She would've been better off with just the fly. Even if we properly remove the fly, I think we also needed to figure out why she swallowed the fly in the first place, heal her emotional problems so she doesn't feel this need to swallow flies, and teach her how to prevent it from happening again inadvertantly.

    Rushing to do things without enough information and having sufficient planning can end up making things worse. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and there have been many cases of policies that sound great unintentionally mortgaging the future to ease suffering in the present.

    This story is totally fictional and made up, but you seem to not mind reading fiction, so I thought it'd be fun: A physician, sick of being told to save corrupt wealthy people at the expense of the ones who really need it, decides to give up his career to save the life of a boy from a murder scene instead of the life of a corrupt politician. However, after the boy became better, people started dropping like flies. The dead corrupt politician, at least, wasn't a killer. The really sad thing was the sister was there the whole time, knew the truth, and tried to warn him. The physician didn't take the time to assess the full situation before springing into action and ended up making things worse. He also shouldn't have merely saved the boy's life and then let him go into a world where the boy had no one to watch over him and no one to love him except for a victimized sister who's constantly running for her life.

    For long-term problems, things don't get solved by organizations going in all superhero-style and slap bandaids on things without followup. Sending an organization to permanently station there and provide raw resources doesn't sound like a sufficient solution either. I do believe that disaster relief is effective and useful (that tsunami isn't the fault of humans), but when the problems are caused by the willful intent of other humans, disaster relief methods are very much the wrong tools for the job.

    and isn't being aware of it one of the first steps?
    True and full awareness, yes. But, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

    if i find out that company A buys products made by slave labor, then i'm going to buy from company B, at least until i find out that they, too, support slave labor
    Company B doesn't need slave labor because, instead, they abuse the commons (pollute the environment, take more than their fair share of "free" resources). Company C doesn't do either -- it charges three times as much by advertising that it's "slave labor free" and "environmentally friendly", but it's also a money laundering front for the mob, so they don't care of they don't make a profit.

    i refuse to look away simply because the tide is against me.
    Good for you. :-)

    I'm not talking about you, though. Nor am I talking about me, actually. OK, so I'm really just making noise and playing devil's advocate. I'm flattered you're responding, but feel free to directly tell me that I'm not helping. I'm a bit slow to check for that sometimes. ^_^;;


Leave me a note!