“Something Is Better Than Nothing, Right?”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Shortly after auditioning one of our Repossessing Virtue interviews a few days ago, I was catching up on reading my RSS feeds when I happened upon a poignant post from Alanna at the Blood and Milk blog:
Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.
But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.
And Glenna at the Scarlett Lion puts a finer point on this as she observes Liberian girls in Monrovia passing over Nancy Drew books donated by Americans. Of course I immediately hear Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina telling Krista that foreigners should just “leave us alone.”
But, perhaps more importantly, I need to remember to apply these lessons closer to home as we encounter more suffering and job losses and homelessness during these tumultuous economic times. When I start to pity the bearded man who sits on a 5-gallon bucket at the off-ramp of Penn Ave and I-394 in sub-zero temperatures, I need to remember he has a life. To pity him is to judge him. That’s not helping him; it’s not helping me; it’s not helping teach my boys in the back seat each day we encounter him.
Repossessing Virtue: Majora Carter on Being More Deliberately Joyful
» download (mp3, 8:46)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
A few weeks ago, I sat in while Kate interviewed urban strategist Majora Carter. Three of us crowded into a tiny editing booth. There weren’t enough headphones to go around so I could only pick up Kate’s side of the conversation as the interview unfolded.
Even though I couldn’t hear her, I remember the moment when Majora Carter told Kate about being inspired by the quote: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Kate smiled and nodded her head and Shiraz, who was engineering the interview that day, also seemed visibly stirred by Carter’s words.
Carter goes on to share how she’s actively trying to be more joyful and appreciative in her every day life. During this time when so many of us are consumed by fear and uncertainty, she says it helps to be reminded that we’ve all got something to offer. Knowing this — and digesting it truly and deeply in our guts — can transform a perceived sense of scarcity into a trusty foundation of personal power.
I’ll admit that while my brain agrees with Majora Carter my nervous system does not. I’m seeing so many layoffs around me and a middle-grade anxiety seems to be wafting through the ventilation system. Recently I woke up from a fitful sleep and noticed myself tense and ill at ease. I wonder how I could flip the script on this creeping malaise. What are you doing to stay grounded and positive during these difficult days? Do you agree that a crisis is really an opportunity in disguise?
Depression and Me
Krista Tippett, Host
We’re putting our show about depression on the air again this week. It’s been over two years since it has been broadcast, and, as always with rebroadcasts, we went in and refined and hopefully made it better. But this is essentially the show we created six years ago, which people discover all the time online.
Some have told us it has helped keep them alive. This kind of effect of our work is humbling and amazing beyond words. But in every way this show is unusual. It is more personally revealing for me than anything else we’ve done. I feel vulnerable knowing it will be out there in the ether again in coming days.
In my journal this week, as in the program script, I “disclose” that when we first created this program I took the making of it as an occasion to walk with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair. I have a bit of the same sense now, airing it again, because that dark place seems a bit closer to me this February than I’m happy to admit. It’s a long, cold, depressing month in a frankly depressing moment in time, and I’m very tired.
As I prepared for those interviews years ago, and conducted them, I worried that peering down into that abyss again — even in memory, or vicariously through conversation with others — might send me into it. It did not. It was a clarifying, strengthening experience; one that made me grateful to be at a remove where I could in fact learn from depression rather than be enveloped by it. But I will stress here — as much for myself as for anyone reading — that we are not in a place to find spiritual enlightenment when we are in the throes of this illness.
Just in recent weeks, I had a new conversation with Parker Palmer, in which we both found wisdom on economic depression in some of the ways he had talked to me about clinical depression all those years ago. But hearing this show again right now, I’m personally most held and strangely comforted by Andrew Solomon and especially Anita Barrows’ insistence that emerging from depression — “healing” if you will — doesn’t mean leaving darkness behind. It means being aware and whole enough to accept dark months and dark times as expressions of human vitality.
Those of us who have struggled with depression live imprinted with its reality — and the terrifying possibility of its recurrence — ever after. It is a gift, albeit an uncomfortable one, to live on this side of health where I can accept darkness as a companion, not a teacher when it is as close as this, yet an essential thread of the life that is mine.
Cultivating Negative Capability
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
We’ve been talking a lot more about poetry here lately, thanks to the recently increased involvement of Larissa, APM’s Poetry Producer. I have to say, I can’t complain about the fact that I now have poetry arriving in my inbox on a fairly regular basis.
Thinking more about poetry has reminded me of a message we received from a listener when we rebroadcasted “A History of Doubt” in January. In the message she mentioned, “As a poet, I’ve long embraced doubt, which Keats conceptualized and praised as Negative Capability.”
The concept she references was first described by the poet John Keats in a letter to his two brothers, in which he writes:
[…] several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
In other words, negative capability is an ability to thrive alongside the uncertain and unresolved aspects of life, a trait that Keats believed poets express especially well. It seems that this capacity could be incredibly useful now, when we are living with a new-found abundance of day-to-day uncertainties.
For this reason, I’m glad we’re making an effort to include voices like poet Katie Ford in our Repossessing Virtue series. As we continue to interview wise voices on the current economic situation (many of which you’ll hear in next week’s program), we’re hoping to hear more from our listeners for a show in May: How are you dealing with uncertainty in your life, and how are you cultivating your own negative capability? Tell us your stories here.
Words Never Rang More True
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Krista and the staff regularly find compelling insights in the online journal Sightings out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The most recent essay by Martin Marty is particularly brilliant and deeply resonates with our Repossessing Virtue series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.
The Pope (John Paul II) was right. The World Council of Churches was right. The preacher down the block was right. The “moderate evangelicals” were right. The first had a perfect record against collectivization; the second had a mixed record, but was positive on this; the third reached a hundred or half a thousand per week preaching “You cannot serve God and Mammon;” the fourth were buffeted in response by evangelical kin who preached “the prosperity gospel” or the “gospel that God blessed only ‘free enterprise.’” In their own ways their criticisms and warnings were directed against “commodification”, whether of labor, leisure, or life. They were not whiners or grumps or exempt from the need for self-criticism, but they were serious, and therefore usually unheard and unheeded.
They do not lack platforms or pulpits today. We see illustrations and confirmations of the problems that occurred when devotion to commodities ruled and commodification set the terms for most of life. Colleague Jean Bethke Elshtain, in my aged and crumbling printout from the 2002 edition of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, celebrated the late Pope’s Laborum Exercens, his “social encyclical” which “shares the basic assumption of Catholic social thought that God created human beings as brothers and sisters, not as enemies…” John Paul II demonstrated his difference from Hobbes and Machiavelli and Marx who “assume worlds of enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict.” With the mortal struggle against Communism behind him, he took on orders called “Capitalist” and its cognates, and warned against the trend to measure everything as commodity, as hyper-ability to amass and worship wealth, et cetera.
Today Sightings has bulging files which document where “enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict” were consuming us. Documents now come not just from papal and conciliar warnings but in news reporting in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and your daily paper—if yours has survived. My breakfast encyclical on February 21st included a story by Tom Hundley in the Chicago Tribune. His account shows how pride, not long ago, focused on what luxuries one could buy and own. He quotes one Cecelia Dames, “an expat Midwesterner” who came back from Europe to a changed world. She observes: “Conspicuous consumption is out…Conspicuous frugality is in.” Hundley reports on “the new braggers” who boast of their success in getting bargains at thrift shops, and are now scaling down the goodies they offer friends at parties.
Hundley offers new terms—new to me, at least—such as “frugalista” and “luxury shame” (“a sense that even if you can still afford it, it’s best not to make a show of it”). Dames: “Maybe [those who adjust, and brag] seem ostentatious about [frugality] because they have to embrace it.” Paul Harris in Britain’s Guardian: “For three decades, American culture has celebrated the glories of unabashed capitalism and the ideals of the rich. No longer. Frugalism is taking hold.” What remains to be seen is whether the collapse of everything—of global markets, shopaholicism, et cetera—are replaced by culture-wide adjustments to a changed world, to fresh thought that can inspire more than bragging.