Monday, May 16, 2011

Trash talk

Although Lent is long gone and we are in the midst of the Easter season, we should still be practicing spiritual discipline. After all, the purpose of Lent leading into the joy of Easter is to transform our entire way of life as we move toward the fulfillment of the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God. I was reminded of this today as I ran across the piece posted below by Luke Armstrong, director of God's Child Project in Guatemala (you can read it in its entire context here). I will let Mr. Armstrong's reflection speak for itself (it was originally addressed to high school students, but applies to us all). Following that, a few additional observations of my own:
Two years ago one of our social workers discovered six siblings living in a garbage dump outside of a village called Ciudad Vieja. This garbage dump was as close to hell on Earth as any place can be. Looming above it was an active volcano. A fine layer of ash fell like snow from its frequent eruptions.

In the garbage dump, the volcano was not the only thing that burned. Decades of garbage lay in enormous mountains. Trapped gasses ignited underground fires, which caused a thick, chemical smoke to hang heavy in the air.

Amongst the waste, carcasses of household pets decayed and emitted putrid smells while flies swarmed and swarmed and swarmed. In the torrent of this oppressive environment, there were also people. Little boys and girls climbed the mountains of burning garbage looking for food. They spent twelve hours every day scouring these mounds of waste in search of a way to stay alive.

As is our mission, we worked to get six siblings out of that environment. After putting the right pieces in place, we managed to find them a place to live and enrolled them in classes at one of our schools. Each student was given new clothes to wear and school supplies.

For two weeks, it seemed as though we had succeeded. But then, all six stopped showing up to school. We could not find them in their new homes. We went back to the garbage dump and sure enough, there they were.

It leads one to ask the question, “Why would any sane person choose a life in hell over a dignified house, and the chance for a good education?” We soon found out the answer.

In the hustle and bustle of getting these kids out of the dump and into new clothes, one of the girls slipped through the cracks and did not receive a new pair of shoes. Her name was Carmen. Carmen wore a pair of ragged shoes that she had found in the garbage dump. During her second week of school another girl noticed these shoes and made fun of her. She laughed at her for having such shabby shoes. Others joined in and made fun of her shoes.

Carmen had lived her whole life in a garbage dump. The social pressure of being made fun of for her shoes was new and completely dislodging for her. It was too much for her to take. She decided to leave school and return to the dump. At least in the dump no one made fun of her. She was the eldest sibling, and her brothers and sisters decided that if she was going to return to the garbage dump, then they were all going to return together.

This story does have a happy ending. In the end we were able to convince the children to return to school where they remain today.

I tell you this story and ask you to share it for this reason. Six people’s lives were almost destroyed because of one unkind comment. All the girl who made the comment did was make fun of another girl’s shoes. Surely all of us have done worse. I know I have. If asked why she did it, I’m sure she would say something we hear all too often: “It was just a joke.”

The girl likely could never have imagined how far the negative consequences of that “joke” could have reached. But that joke almost destroyed the life of six children. Children in garbage dumps don’t survive long. If their health does not give out by the time they reach adolescents, exploiters or human traffickers prey on them.

Though we will never fully know how far our unkind and kind acts will reach, I believe that both reach further than any of us could ever imagine. Every day we are presented with a thousand opportunities to choose kindness or unkindness.

I no longer believe in trivial acts. Everything we do carries enormous weight. Everything we do has repercussions that will last long after we have left this Earth. If we look at the world like this, I think it becomes nearly impossible to choose unkindness over kindness.

Even though others irritate us sometimes, and almost invite nastiness, none of us knows what another is going through. What we can be sure of is that everyone deserves our kindness.

And we can all be thankful that life gives us limitless opportunities to give it.
After reading this, the following thoughts came to mind. Perhaps they will also prove useful to you:

-- Incidents such as the one recounted above happen numerous times every single day all over the world, not just in Guatemala. They happen in the United States. Even here in a monastery in Saint Meinrad, Indiana. The circumstances may be much different, but the same principle is at stake.

-- There are many different types of "garbage dumps" in which people are living--spiritual, emotional, and psychological wastelands that allure and entrap us.

-- It is relatively easy for me to remember the times when I perceived, like little Carmen, being on the receiving end of a "little joke" that made me desire the "safety" of my own little garbage dump--which ultimately leads not to security, but to death. Much more difficult is calling to mind the many times (likely much more numerous than I care to remember) that I was on the "giving" end--offering a seemingly harmless, yet unkind comment driving another to his or her own little garbage dump. Often, such remarks--the flippant observation, the sarcastic response,  the "good-natured" put-down--are made simply to elicit laughs. They are wasteful words--trash talk.

-- In his Rule, St. Benedict speaks often of the need for silence, for taciturnity, for intentional and charitable speaking from a prayerful silence when necessary. Sometimes, he says, even good things should be left unsaid. Benedict seems to be against laughter altogether, but that is not really what he's driving at. He points out a truth we prefer to ignore -- we sin most often with our tongues, the same instruments we use to bless God. Words can either build up or destroy. They are powerful--sharper than any two-edged sword.

-- "Everything we do carries enormous weight," Mr. Amstrong says. "Everyone deserves our kindness." That is the Gospel we proclaim and strive to live, pure and simple. But it's not easy. Or is it? "My yoke is easy and my burden light," Jesus assures us (Matthew 11:30). Kindness, gentleness, compassion, encouragement, and genuine, uplifting humor usually costs nothing and reaps unlimited spiritual fruit in the lives of all. That should make us pause before opening our mouth in prideful haste, or simply out of convenience, because one word in the opposite direction can cost somebody everything. No joke.

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