Living in this World

Monday, February 28, 2011

#98 Bringing what we have

One thing about spending two weeks in a poor and oppressed part of a poor African country that has endured twenty years of brutal civil war is that you see a lot of hard things. And one thing about inviting people from such a community to build their skills in telling and listening to each others’ stories is that you hear a lot of hard stories.

It can be confusing to know where to stand. On the one hand, the opportunity to be together is precious, and clearly a gift for everyone involved. On the other hand, my husband and I had the luxury of going back home to comfortable lives in a rich country, and they are left to live with fierce scarcity and uncertain futures.

This is a common experience, repeated tens of thousands of times as westerners venture out to Asia, Latin America and Africa, meet new people, fall in love, come up against the realities of poverty and inequality--and then go home. We want to help. But I’ve become increasingly aware of the many traps that come with people who have more trying to help people who have less.

One way to get those traps more clearly into focus is to check my motivation, and ask myself: Who and what is at the center of my helping story? If I’m helping you in order to relieve my guilt, and I need your cooperation to succeed, then the heart of the story is about me. If I’m helping you in order to confirm my generosity, and you’re a necessary part of that picture, then again the story is about me. If I’m helping you in order to expand my influence and good works, and I can’t do it without you, then the story is still about me.

We may be able to accomplish things that are of use to other people with these as our underlying--and often unconscious--motivations. But there’s a distortion. My gift has strings attached; I need something back. I need your lives to improve so I can feel less guilty. I need your thanks so I can feel generous. I need the project to grow so I can feel influential. On the surface it may look like it’s all about your needs, but really it’s a whole lot about mine.

Over the years I’ve developed a sensitivity to these traps--and am more likely to fall into one all the way at the other end of the spectrum: Since what I have is so clearly inadequate in the face of what you need, I should do us both a favor and keep my distance.

Luckily, I’ve been trying on a new point of view for my life in general, and carried it with me on our trip. What I bring clearly isn’t enough. It won’t come near to solving your problems. But it’s all I have, and I want to be with you. I’d rather face what feels like complete inadequacy than give up on the possibility of being close. Somehow, this focus on choosing for connection and bringing what I have leads me to solid ground.

What we brought to Northern Uganda fell far short of the need we encountered there. We didn’t bring enough money to begin to make a difference. We didn’t have enough understanding of the local situation to be able to suggest viable income generating activities. We hadn’t done enough advance work to line up meetings between local players who might be resourceful to each other. We weren’t there long enough to follow through on opportunities that came up. How could this be enough?

Yet we brought what we had. We did some income sharing with our friend. We brought our understanding of peer listening, and shared everything we knew that could help people heal from war and build resilience for the challenges ahead. We took time at the end of five full days of this sharing to be with those who were most ready to lead, and did what we could to prepare them to take over the work. We listened for more ways we could be of use in the future. Mostly, we paid attention, weaving and strengthening this growing web of connections and support. We were present to people, and their stories and families and gifts. We loved, and took in the love that was all around us. It was way less than what anybody deserved but it was all we had, and I have to believe that it was enough.

A few things that have made me hopeful recently (though you may not need them so much this month, with all the big news from North Africa and Wisconsin of people standing up together to make change):

A program at Swarthmore College that pairs students and blue collar staff for regular paired mutual learning possibilities., a website of over 100 environmental success stories from around the world, where "the right 'levers' transform vicious cycles into 'virtuous cycles' that contribute to restoration with as much force as the vicious cycles drove decline".

Check out:, a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years.

Also: START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to
(If the background is too dark to read, I hope you can get a computer whiz
to help--and let me know what you figured out! When I go there on my Mac
via Safari, it's fine.)

And I've joined Facebook! We'll see if I can use it as a communications tool and not get sucked into all the rest...