Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Ends Do Not Justify the Means (or Meanness) -- by Josh

My last post got me thinking about the popular refrain: The ends justify the means.  It's occurred to me before that this notion has been responsible for the terrorizing of our fellow human beings in instances as wide-ranging as the Soviet purges, the 9/11 attacks, the recent shut down of the U.S. government and the latest round of anti-government protests in the Dominican Republic, even the way we speak to our children.  I purposefully chose such disparate examples because an even simpler, yet equally profound, counter-example recently struck me.

This excerpt from An Early Pilgrimage, by May Maxwell, challenges all of us to re-consider how we act on a daily basis. To give some background, May Maxwell was among the first Western Baha'is to go on pilgrimage to Akka and Haifa, in present-day Israel, to visit `Abdu'l-Bahá and the holy shrines.  A couple of days before a much-anticipated gathering at a spot on Mt. Carmel where `Abdu'l-Bahá and Bahá'u'lláh had often gone to pray, she became ill, which led to this stirring experience:
"On Sunday morning we awakened with the joy and hope of the meeting on Mount Carmel. The Master arrived quite early and after looking at me, touching my head and counting my pulse, still holding my hand He said to the believers present: 'There will be no meeting on Mount Carmel today. We shall meet elsewhere, Insha'allah, in a few days, but we could not go and leave one of the beloved of God alone and sick. We could none of us be happy unless all the beloved were happy.' We were astonished. That anything so important as this meeting in that blessed spot should be cancelled because one person was ill and could not go seemed incredible. It was so contrary to all ordinary habits of thought and action, so different from the life of the world where daily events and material circumstances are supreme in importance that it gave us a genuine shock of surprise, and in that shock the foundations of the old order began to totter and fall. The Master's words had opened wide the door of God's Kingdom and given us a vision of that infinite world whose only law is love. This was but one of many times that we saw 'Abdu'l-Bahá place above every other consideration the love and kindness, the sympathy and compassion due to every soul. Indeed, as we look back upon that blessed time spent in His presence we understand that the object of our pilgrimage was to learn for the first time on earth what love is, to witness its light in every face, to feel its burning heat in every heart and to become ourselves enkindled with this divine flame from the Sun of Truth, the Essence of whose being is love. So on that Sunday morning He sat with us for a while and we thought no more of the meeting on Mount Carmel, for in the joy and infinite rest of His presence all else was swallowed up."

What a line! "A vision of that infinite world whose only law is love."  I love the use of the word "infinite", because so many disputes are based on an assumption of "finitude" (you know, the opposite of infinitude).  The notion of a finite amount of resources, a finite number of possible right answers.  But a new option has been placed before us, as May Maxwell realized, one that "opened wide the door of God's Kingdom".
The door is open.  It's up to us to step through.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It's a PRO-test -- by Josh

Not to make light of the protests that are starting to fire up here in San Francisco, but I have to share something Rebecca was told today. A friend was driving down a main thoroughfare that is known for wild protests and had to turn around. Not because they were already striking, but because they were in the midst of prepping for the strike by filling the street with garbage, stones and tree branches (one of the common tactics for combating police).
I was like, finally some forethought and strategic preparation, but for the sake of civil unrest! Why can't this type of planning be shown in some other spheres?
I've heard lots of things about the "strikes" that go on here, which is a way of life for many in San Francisco de Macoris.  It's said that it's all a game, with the leaders of unions and opposition groups employing what are essentially professional protesters to cause havoc until the government will throw some money their way.  These supposed freedom fighters make a mess of the city in the name of social progress, creating a few days of chaos during which groups of masked and hooded hoodlums have their way with the poorer parts of the city.  How this is helpful to the impoverished and under served populations is beyond me.
My eyes and throat are stinging from the tear gas in the air, even though the closest clashes are several blocks away. I would love to know what the city's tear gas budget looks like, though, because we can hear one canister after another being fired off.  It's slightly taxing as well, making me feel sluggish.  My point is not to lament my plight, however, because we've got it good.  The poorer barrios are where the tear gas is being fired, and those houses must be filled with this horrid stuff.
It reminds me of a story a friend told me last year, of something that happened on her block.  The police and the protesters were having at each other, exchanging rocks for tear gas canisters, bullets for bullets, when a desperate woman stormed into the middle of the street. Standing between the two groups, she screamed at them, imploring them to stop their nonsense because her baby couldn't breathe. And whaddaya know, they all left!
Such stories of humanity don't outweigh the stupidity, yet it is this innate humanity that somehow keeps things together.  I thought about this during past strikes, how the city is essentially taken over by thugs for a couple of days, who break into people's homes and businesses and rob anyone crazy enough to wander the streets after dark.  About a year ago, Rebecca and I were watching a movie in the living room on the first night of a similar two-day strike when we heard a loud BOOM, followed by another, then the sound of a motorcycle racing off. I glanced outside after a minute and the street was abandoned and quiet, an eerie rarity in our extremely loud and vivacious neighborhood. The next morning I took out the garbage and chatted with Don Ramon, marveling at the front gate that had a big, whitish hand print with a bunch of buckshot dents just above. My assumption is that the police saw someone messing with our gate and did what police do during such a night.  CSI has yet to show up to check the prints.
So, I'm forced to ask, given evidence that at any given moment the city could become Gotham under Bane, what is it that prevents that? I read that during the first day or two of the Rodney King riots, the LAPD essentially cordoned the area off and waited for things to calm down. That's crazy, and shows that the authorities don't really have control. So, who does? Why don't our cities melt down into chaos? And why don't we show more of whatever social restraint prevents that?
My final thought on the topic is that although these protests are theoretically brave gestures aimed at raising up the common man, the opposite takes place.  There are a few different groups involved that represent a numerical minority: 1) Corrupt and incompetent politicians who anger the populace in the first place; 2) Union and opposition leaders and members; 3) Police who get paid jack squat to battle with their equally poor neighbors; 4) Thugs who take advantage of the distracted police force.
The missing, and most important, element is the rest of us, the generally sane residents and business owners and parents who simply want a safe and positive environment. These are the people driven from the conversation by the actions of extremists.  The result appears to be apathy; keep your head down and keep on keepin' on.  But it is this group that needs to engage most and show that there is a different way, that change can and does happen through grass-roots community solidarity and action.
I guess it takes more valiant men and women, like the lady who'd had enough and confronted the forces of chaos to protect her baby.  It's time for the regular people, in the Dominican Republic, in the USA, in Egypt and Mali and everywhere else to take back the conversation and guide our own destiny. It's time.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Hot, Homely One

Whenever the mother of one of my English students greets me with the standard kiss on the cheek, I feel bad for exposing her to my filth. I walk everywhere in the heat and stench of midday tropical sun in the city.
All the clothes I own were acquired from Naked Lady Parties -- the equivalent of hand-me-downs for adults, which I've come to appreciate since it means I don't have to shop (a task I loathe). I don't wear make-up and am constantly sweating. I've had the same 4 oz bottle of perfume for almost 4 years (translation: I rarely use the stuff).
She dresses impeccably, her face ready for a photo shoot at any moment and her cheek is more than cool, it's actually chilled from being in the refreshing A/C of her car. Even her offspring, a 7-year-old boy, dresses better than I do and probably smells better too. Oh, and she's a doctor--a career that is respected ten-thousand fold over a lowly teacher, aka me. I'm the homely one. Before you decide to look for personality flaws, as society has trained us to do when a beauty like this is in our midst, she is also caring, kind and supremely affectionate with her son.
Her cheek is usually the closest I get to A/C on any given day. Usually grocery stores and banks are air conditioned nicely, but I enter one of those establishments maybe once a month. My world is hot. Humid. Sticky. Stinky.
As I was reminiscing how refreshing she is aloud to Josh, he slowly floated into her world.
"Yeah, servicio* would be nice. And family nearby to help with the kids regularly..." he trailed off. Then, as he repeatedly pulled at his shirt front in a self-cooling move (seen too often here not to have one succinct verb to describe it), he declared:
"If I had a car, I would get a job in the capital for the long commute and hope to get stuck in traffic."
The calendar claims its October, but we're still each sweating through four t-shirts a day.

*servicio = someone who comes to your house regularly (usually daily) to cook and clean and even take care of your kids should you wish. Having "servicio" in your employ is very common here, because their salaries are so incredibly affordable (though I have no idea what "affordable" means as we've never looked into it).