Friday, January 05, 2007

Recently, my friend Mark told me that he had been reading about vertigo. It turns out that vertigo is not just simple dizziness induced by looking down from high places. It turns out that many of us have an instinct left in us from when we were primates in the tree-tops, swinging and jumping tree-branch to tree-branch.

It turns out that many of us still want to jump when faced with an open space in front of us.

Something inside of us thinks that the next thing on the to-do list is to leap out into free-fall because there is bound to be another branch to grab on the way down. For primates, that not a problem because there always is another branch. And who knows what might be on that other branch. More food? A mate? Fewer snakes? Vertigo, then, is the dissonance created when the primal urge to jump fights with our modern understanding of our new physical limitations. It is indecision manifested in our Eustachian tubes.

Interestingly, vertigo isn’t a problem when we aren’t looking out over a ledge. We don’t get that lurch of the stomach coupled with a flare of exhilaration behind our eyes while mowing the lawn, making dinner or riding the train. Only when presented with an immediate alternative to life on solid ground does our instinct flare up and try to take over our bodies.

I haven’t had a consistent history with heights. I vividly remember climbing to the top of the high dive when I was 7 or 8, then standing completely paralyzed, knowing the kids were lining up on the ladder behind me but being completely unable to make myself jump. Ultimately, I made them all – peers and older kids alike - climb down from their positions so that I could return to solid ground in a controlled manner. However, I also remember walking right up to the edge of a canyon and letting my toes curl over on a family vacation only a couple of years later and scaring the begeezus out of my mother. I couldn’t understand why she was so freaked out.

But for most of my adult life, though, I have claimed that I was afraid of heights. That claim comes in particularly handy when I’m trying to get someone to like me and I feel like I’ve come across as too fierce and independent. A dash of vulnerability humanizes my image. However, saying that I was afraid of heights never felt entirely true, but I did not have any other words to explain why I preferred to stay away from any situation where I could lean out over an abyss. Glass elevators don’t bother me, nor do observation towers. But when my room is on a top floor of an o-shaped hotel where the interior hallways can look down onto the lobby, I experience what I now know to be vertigo. I call it fear of heights but it is really fear of following my primal instinct to jump. So, the more accurate claim is that heights make me uncomfortable.

I have been reading some books that are the equivalent of a deep crevasse just beyond the railing. A very primal urge within me wants to climb over and jump right in because these books put forth a solution that resonates like truth in my stomach. These books tell me that I have to sell everything that I own and give it to the poor. These books tell me that until I am an actual physical and social neighbor of the marginalized, I cannot change the world. These books tell me that it doesn’t matter how many people I reach or how well I reach them; what’s important is how I reached them. These books repeat Gandhi when he said that the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. These books remind me that my middle-class lifestyle is part of the problem and in direct opposition to Christ’s commands to his disciples.

And I believe these books.

Curse you, Shane Claiborne, and your book, The Irresistible Revolution! Curse you, Bryant Myers, and your book, Walking with the Poor! Curse you, John Perkins, and your book, Let Justice Roll Down!

Actually, I haven’t started reading Let Justice Roll Down, yet. I only just received it as a Christmas present but, frankly, I’m a little afraid to start it because I know what it will tell me. It will tell me to sell everything and give it to the poor. It will tell me to go to the broken people and live among them. It will tell me to ignore the fact that I’m awkward in interacting with people because I fear that they will hurt my feelings by rejecting me and to just do it. It will tell me that benefiting from the privileges that society gives me simply because of the situation that I was born into is the same as actively taking those privileges away from someone who wasn’t lucky enough to be born into my life.

And it will be right.

Because the other thing that these books tell me is that when I do these things, the loneliness will be eased. When I do these things, the sense of aimlessness will go away. When I do these things, the layers of hurt that are the result of taking risks will not seem so overwhelming. I will not feel guilty anymore for not trying to fix all the problems of the world because I will be actually fixing one of the problems: me. And I will really believe that it is enough if I try to fix myself by giving my life to others. I will still get hurt and frustrated but by plunging into a life dedicated to building community and easing the suffering of others, that hurt and frustration will be balanced by a sense of purpose, a sense that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Finally.

These books give me vertigo.

In Bryant Myers' book, he quotes a man named Kwame Bediako, who says, "Part of every genuinely pure motivation in Christian service is also the Christian workers' own sense of need for the same gospel he or she seeks to incarnate and impart to others." That gospel, that good news, is that God loves us. God loves all of us so much that made his son suffer terrible things in order to teach us how to be happier in this life while we're here on earth. We long to tell other people about that love and way of life because we want to believe it ourselves. We want to rest in the knowledge that we are known and loved despite of ourselves.

So why won't I use the knowledge that Jesus shared with us? Why can't I be confident that my needs are already met and so I should devote my time to meeting the needs of others? And it's not just Jesus who says this. All sorts of divine and mortal folk have the same message. Love others, even to the point of sacrificing your own comfort. Why won't I believe that a life lived completely for others is the only life that will provide any real contentment? Why won't I believe it enough to actually do it? I don't want to be the type of person whose habits cause the exploitation of people I can't see. But, for some reason, even though I know the effects of my middle-class lifestyle, I still cling to it.

I want so desperately the peace, the sense of rightness that the people that write these books offer. They feel it and tell me that I can feel it, too. They admit that their lives haven’t become beds of roses overnight but they believe that the journey rather than the destination is what’s so important to get right. They mix candor and hope in equal doses. Their faith in this vision has transformed them and I, too, want to be transformed. I want to know what is on that branch over there. But in between the branch I am standing on and the branch they tell me exists just outside of my peripheral vision is a free-fall. So, I hold myself back. And the vertiginous battle ensues. I suppose that my state of mind right now is often called an existential crisis. Why am I here? What is my purpose? and all that rot. I guess it’s time. I didn’t really do it in college, when you’re supposed to. I had a purpose then. I was going to be a teacher. Once I met Dennis, I knew I was going to be a teacher and have a family. There was no agonizing. Since I knew the destination, taking the steps forward was easy. But now, I don’t have that certainty. Without a destination in mind, I can only guess which direction to travel.

So, I have resorted to incrementalism. The unknown destination produces timidity and I take baby steps. I do community development work but I do it only 40 hours a week for a giant corporation with a salary and benefits. Then, I go home to my safe block of bohemian apartments in an only somewhat marginalized neighborhood to craft, watch DVDs and worry about my social relationships with people that are almost identical to me demographically. I attend a church that is traditional in its trappings, progressive in its vision and so young that it can’t actually find its ass with both hands yet, thus saving me from actually having to commit to any of its three pillars of Reconciliation, Worship or Community Development. Each year, I increase my offerings by 1%. As of January 1st, I’ll be at 6%. Only 4 more years to go until I’m in alignment with Biblical teachings! Woo. Hoo.

But is incrementalism really that bad? You can't run a marathon your first time off the couch. Should I see this time in my life as training so that I can maintain a radical lifestyle in the face of a world that tells me that creature comforts aren't really so bad? Kids in sweatshops actually have a better life than they would have if I didn't buy that beautiful decorative item for my shelf, right? Don't I need to maintain this lifestyle at least for the next two years so that I can effectively study public policy in order to really make a difference? Or is that just rationalization?

What is muddying the waters here actually seems to be two different philosophies about how to follow God's recommendation for a good life. One says that actually helping the poor is what is most important. The other says that my own spiritual health is what is most important.

I am preparing to start school at the University of Chicago's Harris School for Public Policy. I was born white, in an upper-middle class family to parents who created a stable love-filled childhood, which resulted in relatively healthy self-esteem and world-view. I have almost no demons to get in the way of being successful. By sheer luck, I'm not burdened by children to care for. I'm pretty smart and find the theories of community development to be extremely interesting. My father is fairly well-known and even more well-liked in a variety of prominent circles and since I am currently following his path, I am a little bit of a darling to those folks, which grants me access to them that I would not normally have gotten. My mother is an excellent hostess and has instilled in me a good instinct for complex social dynamics. Aside from being a woman, I am perfectly poised to be influential in Western society. If actually helping the largest amount of marginalized people improve their lives so that they can reach the potential they were born with is the goal, then systemic change is required and I am going to be good at shaping systemic change in a few years. But I think that for me to be good at changing the world by changing its structures, I will need some creature comforts. I will need to come home from a day of work and not work. People who relocate to under-resourced communities never get a break from that relational work. I will need to maintain a professional image so I can make good first impressions with people I want to win over. Professional images require a fair amount of upkeep, both financial and with the amount of attention necessary. I will need to stay up-to-date on the worldly interests of people that I want to persuade because good persuasion starts where the opposite side stands. To be influential, I must appear relevant and I can only accomplish this by staying in the world.

But if embodying Christ's humility and following his example of surrounding himself with the marginalized folks of society is the goal, then I need to drop out of the world. This viewpoint says that it doesn't matter how many people I help out of poverty or that I help them out at all. The poor will be with you always. What matters is that I treated the poor like they were my equals. Their transformation isn't the point. Mine is. And I won't be transformed unless I stop relying on my own strengths and begin relying upon God's. It is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. This is because the camel relies on God utterly and the rich man hardly at all. I believe heaven is a state of being during this mortal life that is completely content because it is completely in line with what God wants for us. And God is very clear that he wants for us to treat others as if they have just as much right to my stuff as I do. If he takes your shirt, give him your coat also. It is very clear about who is blessed: the poor, the meek, those who mourn.

I keep trying to find a way to end this post that will end my equivacation and come to a logical conclusion that will make it absolutely clear to me whether I should jump into a life like Shane's, which is not unlike my life on the island incidentally, or whether I should keep on the path that I'm on. However, I don't think I'm going to find it today. Probably, if this kind of thing could be wrapped up in one blog post, I wouldn't feel so much vertigo right now. My fear is that if I'm supposed to jump off my present tree limb, I don't want to replace it with another limb that offers no improvement. Without a sense of calling or rightness from an actual destination, I don't think I would actually experience much of a change spiritually. The journey is more important than the destination, but leaping from empty branch to empty branch, no matter how well you do it, is bound to get discouraging.

Does this mean I just have to wait? I suppose that, in itself, is relying on God. I can't manufacture my own right time. Like Esther, it will come for me whether I'm ready or not. I just wish this roaring in my ears would quiet down so I could get my balance again.

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