Ubuntu and the Peace Corps

We were halfway through the hour-long walk back from a neighboring township to our village of Thembalethu, South Africa, when the dark, cloudy skies opened up and a torrential downpour fell upon us. We quickened our pace, attempting to flee the onslaught. The dirt road was quickly turning to mud; with each step our feet began sinking deeper into the swampy red earth.

We were only a month into our Peace Corps service at this point, in a strange part of the village where we had never been, and had little idea where to seek shelter. I was with Heather, who was not only the nearest American volunteer to me but would also become my closest friend over the next two years. We looked at each other anxiously, despair seeping into our hearts as we resigned ourselves to walk for the next half hour, though we could barely see 3 feet in front of us. Then, a small lone figure appeared under an umbrella…

What Works: My “aughts” weren’t awful, they were awesome

Fra Angelico's The Conversion of St. Augustine (my patron saint)

I’ve been taken aback these last few weeks by all the retrospectives and their universal declaration that the “aughts” were an awful decade. Objectively, it’s hard to argue as they trot out disaster after disaster, setback after setback. And when pressed, I recall that as the decade began I had a six-figure salary at a high-flying dot-com, millions to come with the genuinely likely public offering, and a beautiful girlfriend. I had none of those things within a few years. But I need to be reminded of the losses and setbacks and derailed career, because my perception of the story line of the decade is entirely different. For me the aughts weren’t awful; they were awesome.

You see, for me the key events of the decade are: reclaiming my sobriety, my conversion and baptism, and feeling and answering the call to return to writing, with a new focus on spiritual work. The past decade has in many ways been the most joyous of my life. It has been a period of spiritual growth, of expanding community, and of a radically increased sense of usefulness and purpose.

There’s an obvious connection here. As I said in my column, “Losing your footing and finding the ground“, losing the material things that define our lives can shake us into adjusting our focus, our priorities.

But mine is not a neat and tidy conversion story of: “My life was pointless and painful, then I found God, and now everything is rosy.” For me, the life stripped away by the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11 did matter and, in many ways, was good. I looked forward to going to work every morning and figuring out how to bring more music into people’s lives. My work was both creative and challenging. I lost a good thing. And the same was certainly true of my relationship.

What Works: Turn Off the News

what_works-no_news-inside

I don’t mean to put anyone out of work in this difficult economy — I even have several friends in this profession — but I implore you to turn off the news and leave it off. Mainly, I want you to turn off the local news, where “if it bleeds, it leads” and the priority, after titillating you with gore, is to scare you — because they thrive if we think we have to watch or we’ll die.

There are a number of reasons I recommend turning off the news. First, life is stressful enough already. Who needs this? Second, if you are powerless over something, there’s usually no benefit in worrying about it. Third, exposing yourself regularly to the ugliest aspects of society darkens and coarsens your view of other people, which takes you away from compassion and love, and thus away from God. It undermines your spiritual fitness.

Rather than helping us better to mourn — to see the suffering in the world with an open heart — watching the news regularly hardens our hearts. In order to face so much suffering with no option of relevant action, we detach from it; we tune it out, if you will.