When my sister chose to volunteer at a Quaker program in Nicaragua, I thought about the country for the first time in years. The pull to visit became irresistible when my 18-year-old son chose to start his Central American trek working there with my sister’s eldest daughter in another Quaker-supported project. My primary motive in visiting Nicaragua was to support my sister, her family, and my son—though exploring Latin America and speaking Spanish were attractions as well. I had not expected such a profound experience, both of connection and of pain. I came away full to overflowing with awareness of our society’s deep misalignment with right order and the toll that it takes not only on others but on ourselves.
I knew a little of Nicaragua: the overthrow of the U.S.-supported Somoza dictatorship by a group of young revolutionaries in 1979, the charismatic Daniel Ortega, Reagan’s support of the "anticommunist" Contras, the agony of watching our government war against and effectively destroy the revolution. I couldn’t really take it all in back then. I would squint at the news and process it at arm’s length, determined to stay informed and register my opinion, but equally determined to ward off an emotional impact that I didn’t know how to handle. Then the country disappeared from the news.
Suddenly it was back. On my first morning in Nicaragua, I joined local Friends at an ecumenical gathering where the speaker happened to be Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit priest and active member of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s. I couldn’t possibly have had a better introduction to Nicaragua. Now out of government, after leading an enormously successful grassroots literacy campaign, Cardenal was doing community work in a poor neighborhood. He spoke of his struggle to come to terms with the limitations of a small, struggling democracy in a global economy and of the challenge of reenergizing disillusioned revolutionaries, many of whom had abandoned the pursuit of common good for individual fulfillment. There was much tragedy in his message, but no despair. He continued to be faithful, to align himself with the poor, and to invite others to lives of service, love, and hope. Steeped in the practice of liberation theology, he possessed profound integrity, compassion, and faithfulness to his understanding of the requirements of the gospel. I think all of those from the U.S. who were there were both humbled and inspired by Fernando Cardenal, knowing the sorry role our government had played and wanting somehow to add our weight to the tradition and spirit he embodied.
That afternoon I went with my sister and her two younger children across Managua, a 16-cent ride in an unbelievably crowded old yellow school bus (the public transportation of the country) through endless neighborhoods of one-story, patched-together housing to the long-distance bus terminal where drivers hawked their routes and vendors hawked snacks and plastic-bagged drinks. From there we took another bus through trash-strewn countryside, past signs of poverty such as I had never seen, into the dry hills of the north. In Matagalpa, where my sister works, we left the bus and walked up the steep streets of the city to an outlying barrio where the pavement stops and a rocky dirt road leads further up into the hills. We passed the plastic-tarp enclosure where the neighbors make their living by selling tortillas and finally arrived at the house where my sister’s family has a room.
Part of me was eagerly soaking up the newness of everything, another part was being an attentive aunt. But I also noticed my body feeling just the tiniest bit ill-used. There had been a lot of crowded buses, my backpack was heavy, my feet hurt, and my legs didn’t really want to do that last hard walk up the hills. A car would have been so much more convenient. Even as I thought it, I recognized the voice of privilege speaking.
The next morning we walked back across Matagalpa (we always walked—after three days, my legs were aching). We dropped off my younger niece at school on the way to my sister’s work at Casa Materna, where rural women who are pregnant and at risk come (sometimes walking for days) to await and recover from giving birth. I was impressed with my sister’s hard-won ability to communicate in Spanish, but I was shy around these women. I could not believe that I could belong in their lives.
Southeastern Yearly Meeting’s ProNica, through which my family volunteered, has no projects of its own. Rather, it has sought out locally run initiatives to support with resources and volunteers. The farm where my son worked provides an alternative living situation, and hopefully an alternative future, for formerly glue-addicted street children from Managua. On my first day of visiting my son, we walked there together through the countryside. It was much greener in the south, with tree-sized poinsettias and fruit trees of all types. The farm had brightly painted bungalows, cows, orange trees, endless lines of laundry, and lots of boys. They swarmed over my son, and he joked, wrestled, and chased with them. They laughed and begged for more. There was something deeply right here. Children should play. Poor children recovering from trauma in particular should play. A young man from the United States who has himself been well played with was a perfect match.
There was something deeply right about my niece’s work as well. She and my son boarded at the same house, but she walked in a different direction every morning to the girls’ project: newer, smaller, more bedraggled and brave-looking than the boys’ farm. There she continues to play a central role as a volunteer. Her passion for this work is intense. When my niece talks in the U.S. about wanting to work with girls around abuse, people automatically say, "How nice, a career in social work." She is at a loss to counter the bland, bureaucratic "helping" tone. In Nicaragua, she is in charge of a soap-making project, and she pours her heart into it. She invests in these girls, loves them, grieves when one leaves, wants deeply for them, sees herself doing work that matters. She is centered. It is hard for her to imagine coming home.
Traveling with my son brought me in contact with many more young people far from their homes in North America and Europe. I heard a common refrain: They were looking for lives of meaning in Nicaragua that they could not seem to find at home. One young man almost trembled with excitement as he talked about a project to market sustainable forest products. That way natives of the rain forest can have a livelihood while the forest is being saved. This young man was incredibly respectful and thankful to be doing his small part. Somehow these young people knew that what they were doing—or what they hoped to do—could make a difference.
Day after day we ate gallopinto (the particularly Nicaraguan form of beans and rice) and drank wonderful fresh fruit frescas. We saw endless fields of drying coffee beans, stayed in a little hotel so overflowing with extended family that there was scarcely room for guests. We respected the fragility of Nicaraguan plumbing and didn’t overburden the toilets (when we had them) with toilet paper. We saw televisions on all day long, conversed with friendly taxi drivers and market vendors, ached at the sight of plastic bag litter and water pollution beyond anything we could imagine, bought fresh pineapples for breakfast, got shoehorned into buses, rested in the park that fronted the church in every town, revised our mental image of the tropics (which here have an uncanny resemblance to the African savanna), washed our clothes on the combination washboard/basin of concrete that is found in every yard, and soaked up Nicaragua.
I was north in Matagalpa again the day before my plane was to leave. A bus strike had shut down all public transportation. I arranged to take the return trip of a hired car from Managua. The car had been attacked by striking bus drivers on the way up and concern for my safety ran high. As I zoomed back to Managua in speed and comfort, past angry strikers and hundreds of people who had no choice but to walk, I felt my privileged separation acutely. I would have given anything for a small place in a slow, crowded bus.
The Western hotel where I spent my last night, conveniently located across from the airport, felt light-years away from the shabby, rundown hostel in the middle of town where my son and I had planned to stay. The luxury seemed obscene. The loud, complacent voices of U.S. businessmen grated in my ears. At the airport the next morning, all the English-speakers seemed like people from another planet. I found a local newspaper and clung to it as if I were drowning.
I felt mad and profoundly alone. Everything seemed normal, but it was all wrong. How could I keep this life-changing experience alive in the face of the overwhelming cultural unawareness that was threatening to engulf me? I feared the same weight of normalcy that would turn my niece’s passion into blandness would turn this journey into an innocuous vacation. It was shocking to see people speaking English, driving in cars, living their lives as if there were no other way to be. I felt as if my grip on reality were in danger, that if I came all the way home I would be lost.
A New Perspective
I imagine I’m not the first to have felt this way. A trip to a Third World country (or immersion into a poor community at home) can offer a powerful perspective on the "good life" of affluent countries. We see the injustice that lies at its base, how it feeds on the oppression of the poor. Perhaps for the first time, we experience alternatives to its high-speed diet of distractions, comfort, convenience, and material goods. In an environment where less is available and the pace is slower, we notice more. We notice ourselves; we notice others; we notice the world around us. We reflect on what is really important.
Some of us are moved by a powerful attraction to the simplicity we’ve experienced. We yearn to go back and soak up a life that seems less complicated, more attuned to real human values and needs. Others are more repelled by the injustice and seek to abandon an identity that has been stained by oppression, distance themselves from those of our own group, and find ways to claim the oppressed. Most of us strike an uneasy balance, simultaneously attracted while repelled, struggling with the guilt, and working hard to be good global citizens.
I want more. I don’t want to just romanticize the poor or be pulled by motivations of anger or guilt. I want my trip, my culture shock, all of my contact outside the wealth of the United States, to add clarity and compassion to my picture of myself and my world. I want to deepen my ability to respond faithfully, wherever I am.
Experiencing life with such shocking clarity upon my return from Nicaragua made me wonder how much oppression is held in place simply by unawareness. We don’t realize that our "normalcy" is not everyone’s experience, not the full picture of reality. The expense of that unawareness is enormous, and it is good for nobody. We are dying for lives of meaning in this country. We are served a cultural diet that pleases the eye and the taste buds, but leaves us spiritually starving. Those who achieve the most status within our society are fed on the worst lies and are the most seriously malnourished. Yet we don’t even know.
Despite its seeming comfort, staying within the confines of our sheltered reality does everyone a huge injustice. Those who are comfortable are denied a larger reality and authentic connections, while others are denied a voice, respect, even the basics of survival. Everyone’s life is diminished; everyone is impoverished. How can we communicate this? How can we find attractive ways to offer the discomfort and upset of normalcy that seems critical for liberation?
I think the first step is reclaiming the "good life." We are deeply confused in this wealthy West about what constitutes such a life—and we are exporting that confusion to the rest of the world. A truly good life must be rooted in reality, contact, and meaning. In its place, we have been offered separation and substitutes: separation from the rest of the world by injustice, separation from ourselves through addiction and busyness, separation from each other in the cult of individualism, and substitutes for meaning in things. I want to go for the real good life by finding my way to loving contact with both the poor of Nicaragua who are suffering from too little, and the rich of the U.S. who are suffering from too much.
Contact with the poor is challenging enough, but we have some points of reference in our Quaker experience. We can visit. We can encourage Quaker exchange projects, workcamps, and volunteer opportunities. Perhaps every yearly meeting would benefit from a focused relationship with a Third World country. We can give more of our young people a chance to experience life outside of this unawareness and pseudo-"good life" so they might breathe more easily and deeply of reality. We can help each other find lives that keep us centered in global awareness—not because we have been bad, but because these are the lives that most truly nourish us.
We can invite people from poor countries, and poor people from this country, into our lives at home. We can find opportunities to meet the immigrant community, make contact with foreign students, ask people with international experience over for dinner. We can make eye contact with the homeless, looking for ways we might feed each other. If we are always on the lookout for opportunities, they can be found.
We can adopt daily disciplines that keep us rooted in global awareness. My family puts money into "Right Sharing" jars by our toilet and our computer. If putting money in the jar helps me remember that I am thankful for running water or the benefits of word processing and e-mail, then I get to be more thankful every day, enriching my life while freeing up resources for others.
The question of how to stand in solidarity, in loving contact, with those who live in wealth and unawareness seems harder. I think the true motivation has to be compassion for that separation, for the loss that comes with it. I’ve found it helpful to think of those who have bought the dream of capitalism, whether as active profit makers or unwitting followers, not as evil forces to be distanced from or fought against, but as a vast multitude of lost sheep in need. I have this image of poor, blundering people who can’t see, careening around in a desolate place. They are capable of doing great harm with the big sticks they carry but have no idea what they are doing or why. They cannot see the life-giving springs of the oasis. Perhaps those of us who have been offered glimpses of true reality can be their guides.
To address the separation that lies at the root of unawareness, we must offer contact. When I showed pictures from my trip to people at a community center where I work, one woman’s response was "How quaint!" Another expressed a common sentiment when she declared that she couldn’t imagine going anywhere without her hair dryer. This is where we have to start. I want to invite these people, who are wealthy only in comparison with the world’s poor, not to guilt but to a richer, fuller life. I have to start with loving them, which I do. I think the next step is to show myself more fully to them—to share more of my life rather than less, so that contact with me can be a window to a bigger world. With others perhaps we can offer more windows: other relationships that offer a positive human reason to retool their idea of the good life.
We have a lot to learn. I think the key is keeping compassion and contact in mind, and listening closely for how people are reaching for meaning and closeness in this mixed-up world. I have a vision of setting up listening projects at malls at Christmas time, inviting people to talk about what they want these gifts to represent, how much they care, and what a poor substitute the holiday hype and stress are for what they really crave.
My own version of the good life is a work in progress. I have found meaningful work that keeps me rooted in family, neighborhood, and issues of economic justice. I love and lead in my family and my meeting, and I keep in touch with a wide circle of friends. I am present to my urban neighbors and join with others to increase the natural beauty around us. We open our house to folks from all over the world. I write a letter a month for a grassroots support campaign for indigenous environmental struggles in poor countries. I play a small but faithful role supporting a friend who runs a school in northern Uganda. I give away money with joy and systematically invite others to do the same. I work on my Spanish. I am enormously blessed.
Do I still have more than I need? Absolutely. I partake regularly of Western luxury, and though I try to hold it lightly, I know I am seduced by convenience and the ease of acquisition. Is what I do enough? No. I make mistakes, waste time, and let opportunities go by through fear and sloth; the injustice of this world is barely touched by my efforts.
Should I feel guilty? I don’t think so. There is something in guilt that smells of separation to me; I think it is a trap. Am I withholding? Could I be more faithful, find a fuller expression of this deep longing for connection, and an even better life? That is the question that engages me.