Month: April 2014

The Deification of Doing Good

“You’re doing really good work.” It’s a phrase that those of us who have chosen a life path of service to others hear often. And if that life path includes sacrificing modern comforts and a typical Western lifestyle, while entering into a completely different culture that requires a lot of learning and sacrifices itself just to adapt and absorb into, well then you’re doing really, really good work. And often times when we hear this we try to remain humble and accept the complement while turning it into an opportunity to point out all of the countless others that we would not be able to do such work without. Yet, often in our heads we might be thinking, “Well yeah, duh.” We wouldn’t choose such a lifestyle to do bad work. But underneath this statement there’s always an uncomfortable assumption that the person making the statement doesn’t feel that their own work is “good” or important. Somehow, our work that happens in the nonprofit, aid, or development sectors seems to come with the idea that it is somehow nobler than other professions simply because of the sacrifices and change of lifestyle that comes with it. We get put up on some sort of pedestal where onlookers like to use the apparent goodness of our hearts to somehow also assume infallibility. But the truth is, we’re not saints, and many of us do this work just as much for the adventure and adrenaline rush of the unpredictability of it all or because we simply would go crazy with a normal routine to our lives. The truth is also that many of us use the goodness of our work as a way to determine our own value as human beings in an upside down sort of selfless self actualization.

indexI recently read the book Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander, which is a chronicle of her experiences in the international humanitarian world hopping between countries for more than ten years to work with refugees and victims of natural disasters. It’s a book, however, that is much less about the aid work that she did and much more about normalizing the lifestyle of those involved by showing the author’s own personal experience as she tries to navigate relationships, personal discoveries, and professional progress as a typical American throughout her twenties. She just so happens to go through all of that in a number of different countries, with a number of different cultures, and while providing shelter and lifesaving supplies and services to people affected by war, disease, and disaster. Throughout the book Alexander struggles with the perception of her “doing really good work” from everyone while at the same time, she’s just trying to live life. She writes candidly about her condition as an adrenaline junkie chasing after devastation to be involved with through her aid work much more than doing it because she just wants to help people. But she also shares about the conflict she feels when that lifestyle prevents her from ever having normal relationships, or being able to enter into any long-term commitments, or think about a family and a home of her own.

While much of the stories that she shares almost seem mundane to someone reading who is in the international development world (which she also points out has its differences from the aid world) it’s kind of refreshing that making them seem mundane almost seems to be the point of the book. By sharing her very regular experiences as a human going through all of these things she takes away much of the wonder and sometimes exaggerated admiration associated with international aid and development work. At one point after spending some time back in New York and hearing so many people’s reactions to what she did she writes, “People like me, out there “doing God’s work” and “saving the world,” wanted to get drunk and laid, too. We have the same concerns – ageing, putting on weight – as anyone else. It just so happened that the dull, daily work of caring – the familiar task of living our lives – was played out against a backdrop of humanitarian catastrophe.” She doesn’t write her stories to make herself out to be a hero or to even to promote the extraordinary efforts of the agencies that she worked for, but to humanize those doing the work. And although from a literary standpoint, that might not make the most exciting book ever to read, from a humanitarian standpoint, I do think that it is a very important concept to share with the world. The very fact that we do spend so much of our time committed to this vague notion of doing good makes us grasp all the much more for ways to simply live our lives outside of that notion as well and sometimes even leads us to succumb to those vices even more that counteract all of the good doing.

The deification of doing good can often times lead to greater problems for those of us doing the work and it would be much more helpful sometimes if people realized just how real, and banal, and sometimes difficult our everyday lives can be when we’re just trying to take care of ourselves and our own needs whether they be physical, mental, emotional, relational, or whatever. Being so smitten by how we do such good work can just end up putting extra stress and unnecessary expectations on us while feeding that doubt and inadequacy that we already have to deal with as human beings. And those things all make the doing good much more difficult. If more people understood the nitty gritty, sometimes ugly side of doing good, it may even lead in the long run to smarter donations, more effective interactions, and better support for those that need it to continue making the work possible. It’s unreasonable to expect that every person that uses somebody’s donation to do something good would be the next Mother Theresa. And for that matter, even Mother Theresa didn’t spend every moment of her life helping lepers and feeding the poor. And she was a saint! Even Jesus Christ spent more time making furniture and hanging out with his friends (probably telling jokes about the Pharisees and drinking wine) than raising people from the dead. And he was God! So how much more reasonable to expect is it that we mere humans who have simply chosen this line of work as humanitarians would also need to spend time just living life. Once you make that commitment and jump into this world of aid or development, sometimes it feels like that becomes your biggest fight, just trying to gain the freedom to live your life without worrying about how it might be viewed as affecting your “good” work.

So, you want to learn more about Sudan or Sri Lanka, or Sierra Leonne, or Haiti, don’t read Jessica Alexander’s Chasing Chaos. But if you want to see how one woman struggles to live life while helping others improve their lives in all of those places, then definitely read it. And if you want to keep seeing how one guy like me tries to balance life and doing good here in Haiti, keep reading the Green Mango Blog.  I may not share quite the normal life stories that Alexander does, but I will keep sharing stories of life as I search for meaning within the mundane and better ways to understand the doing of good.

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear what you thought of it in the comments.

Not Spiritual Enough

I have a good friend here in Haiti who came to the country four years ago to work with a large Christian NGO based here. After two years of working for that org, having raised significant funds and provided significant growth to their programs, he was kicked out of the organization on the basis of being “not spiritual enough”. Although he has now moved on to do his own thing with a fair amount of success (and what I would consider a very high level of spirituality) this allegation of his spirit lacking depth still nags at him making him constantly question whether he is being an acceptable reflection of the god he follows through the work that he does here. He is one of the growing number of young Christians working within this country who may not accept the missionary label but they still do what they do out of a complete devotion to Jesus Christ and what they feel to be his calling upon their lives to serve their brothers and sisters in need. So when someone criticizes their spirit, especially for the purpose of fulfilling a nonprofit political agenda, it becomes deeply personal and can cause one to really doubt their reasons for even trying to follow God.

Why do we humans have the need to create hierarchies for spiritual experiences?

Why do we humans have the need to create hierarchies for spiritual experiences?

I’ve been in that place before myself, perhaps more legitimately so than my friend, where Christian supporters of the work that I do here throw into question my own spiritual standing with God, often as an excuse to save them from the burden of caring themselves. It’s a convenient way to blame their lack of desire to donate or volunteer or promote by saying that I’m the one who’s not spiritual enough. It makes it easier for them to ignore their own mandate to live in humble unity and sacrificial love if they can reject it based on a simple dogmatic checklist of my own spiritual actions. If I don’t mention the work of Jesus Christ a certain number of times in my newsletter, then clearly they don’t need to donate to any of my community programs that benefit Christ’s children.

So when this friend and I were recently sitting and eating some grio (fried pork) and plantains along with another friend who was visiting, all three of us being Americans with backgrounds of being raised in different sectors of Christianity, we tumbled upon this conversation once again. An open discussion of theology and how we apply it to our work and everyday interactions with one another ensued. Who is the authority to decide what is spiritual enough, or when one becomes too spiritual? How can we come to terms with our own personal spiritual paths, when they become a measure of our ability or inability to do a certain job that we feel called to do? How can we continue to ask questions that lead us to a fuller understanding of our own spirit while still holding firm to a sense of faith in our beliefs? These questions brought up the issues of how, in the nonprofit world, money often carries power to dictate the level of spirituality that is integrated into one’s work regardless of how much is already in one’s life. There seems to be a secret code to gauge these levels that only the people giving money are privy to, not those asking for the money. A code that is never revealed in the Bible or any other book but is constructed out of our own agendas to prove ourselves right.

Somewhere along the trajectory of the conversation it was revealed that I have a minor degree in religion and have studied a variety of religious practices which would seem to suggest that maybe I would know some of the answers to such questions. But really, I think that anyone who has studied religion, especially those who have studied it much more than myself, might agree that the more you learn, the more questions you ask, not the more answers you know. The more you study the more mysterious and profound the Spirit becomes when you see how it is manifested and experienced by so many different individuals and cultures around the world.

Which is why it becomes especially offensive when someone uses our spirituality as a scapegoat for something completely different. When someone suggests that we may not be spiritual enough to do our job, what they really are saying is that the way we experience the spirit doesn’t look enough like the way they experience it and they are afraid of what that means so they want to remove us from their presence so that they don’t have to confront those questions that they might be tempted to ask themselves. What it means is that they’ve deduced the Spirit into a tidy dictionary definition with which they can judge someone’s value as a human being. They think they’ve caught lightning in a bottle and they’ve quickly shoved a cork in the top so when someone suggests that such a thing can’t be contained they swiftly gesture into the distance and cry, “Away from me you heretic!”

5 - God in the Corner

A painting by a good friend of my, Phoenix Jr Badio. Whatever spiritual limb we decide to live our lives out on, can we at least agree that we’re connected?

I believe that any religion that requires language to define its legitimacy deserves to be questioned. The spirit moves without words, driving our beliefs to dance and change like the wind. The moment you start to tie that spirit down with labels that try to describe something we can never fully comprehend you betray the essence of your own spirit that moves you to be dissolved into something greater than yourself. That spirit moves beyond the limitations of words like Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, or any other. Any one may be true or they all might describe some sort of truth, but no one can deny that there is a spiritual reality to each that can be universally understood and experienced once the words are wiped away. Describe the experience without the religion, and it all tastes the same. Beautiful and sweet with a sense of hope residing somewhere in its core. Of such a thing, there can never be “enough”.

So may we all reject notions of “spiritual enough”. No matter what label we choose to affix to ourselves based on the building that we walk into when we want to commune with the spirit in an intermutual fashion with others, let us live with a desire to never be spiritual enough. For such a state of being does not exist and anyone who claims to be there is probably living a much more boring life than the rest of us anyway.

What do you think? Is spiritual enough possible? And if it is, once we get there, what is there to live for after that?

Feathers Aren’t Wings

I was sitting on my stairs outside my house with my roommates who had just finished up their cow’s blood stew that they had cooked up with other honorary BAZ members. They’re not vampires, really, it’s just one of the manly bukson sort of things they like to do when they’re all free on a market day when there’s plenty of blood available. As they were cleaning up their bowls my CEO of Poor Isn’t a Dog roommate started telling the others of his plans, “You know, it’s because of all those blans that come in for a week and get to know us and act like our friends but then forget about us as soon as they go back to their lives. We drive them around on our motorcycles (and you know they’re not that light like Haitians) and we go with them to the beach and to the internet and to Bassin Bleu and to the store in Jacmel to buy wine and into the countryside to pray for people. But afterwards they never think about us again but they’ll send money to send some kid to school that they’ve never met or build a building that we’ll never go into or buy medicine for some old sick person that’s just going to die anyway. But where’s the future in that? What about our future?” One of my other roommates interrupted his tirade, laughing, “And what are you going to call this organization again?”

“Malere Pa Chyen” he proudly responded, “Poor Isn’t a Dog”

“Oh yeah?” replied Roomie #2 with a smile on his face, “Well I’m starting an organization too. Mine’s going to be called ‘Feathers Aren’t Wings”, “Plim Pa Zel” for all those people who like to get our hopes up by giving us something little, a feather, but not doing enough to help us fly.” Then he plucked a few leaves off of the almond tree next to him and held them in his hands and flapped his arms while hopping like a lead turkey trying to fly. All of the guys burst out laughing and Roomie #1 cried, “That’s great! It can be a branch of Poor Isn’t a Dog International!” Great, I thought to myself, my roommate’s already becoming a nonprofit politician trying to create a monopoly with his pretend organization to control all the rest. But it was all in good fun and I always enjoy hearing my roommate’s opinions on these things (makes good blog material). They’re a bunch of guys who have about as much interaction with foreigners as any Haitians without actually working with them in any sort of official capacity. And they’re a bunch of guys who know their own white guy well enough that they’ll say anything in front of me (knowing full well that it will probably end up on the internet sometime).

Fly you IDIOT! FLY!

Fly you IDIOT! FLY!

So whenever they begin to go off about the blans I always take note but also maintain a keen sensitivity as to how to take a joke. When they say these things I know that they’re not saying them out of a vindictive, hateful place, but from a place of real sincerity where they wish for more of a relationship with the visitors who come through their community rather than just the momentary use of their services. They wish for a more concrete and long-term effect of those visitors time beyond friendly good intentions. They realize the fact that there is more potential for growth on both sides if we remain connected and continue to search for ways to support one another. No one likes to feel used and then discarded. No one likes to be reminded that they don’t have what it takes to fly and never will. Hope, after all, can be a very dangerous thing if it never turns into anything more.

This isn’t to say that everyone that comes into the country for a week or so should become BFFs with every motorcycle driver they ride behind and every interpreter that translates for them and every Haitian that they encounter, but we should be careful about where we suggest authentic relationships may exist when in our American mindset we may just be trying to be friendly. If you get to know someone well enough when you’re in Haiti to at least accept their friend request on Facebook (because they will send you a friend request) then at least write them a message every once in a while to see how they’re doing to show them you remember them and appreciated the short time that you spent with them. If you want to go one step further, on their birthday, send them $20. Whether it’s to repair their motorcycle, feed their child, pay a school fee, or just to go to the beach and have some fun because it’s their birthday, I promise you that they could use it and would really appreciate it.

Or if nothing else, at least keep those individual’s in mind when you’re thinking about making a donation to some program in Haiti. Think about those people that made your time in the country a little easier and a little more enjoyable and consider what programs might actually have an impact on their future that they might actually benefit from. You’ve already helped support their life on the ground by paying them for certain services while you were there, now think about how you can help them make it higher in life. What programs are going to give them wings? Or if you’re really crazy, you could actually write them a note on Facebook to ask them their opinion on what a good program would be to support with your donation. I know it seems a little upside down to ask the advice of the people whose lives would actually be impacted by the contribution of your money (they’re not the ones who worked hard to earn it after all), but you might be surprised how it changes your perspective. But please, don’t suggest anything if you don’t intend on following through. It may seem like a polite way to let someone down easy by saying “I’m thinking about,” or “it’d be nice if,” but it actually becomes the quickest way to set up unrealistic expectations and break hearts. It’s the quickest way to make someone feel like a dog or to see the feathers that they’re clutching will never help them fly. Consciously considering our intentions to follow through on interactions cross culturally is where solidarity can begin and dependence never gets a chance to take seed.

You can still support the education sponsorship and the construction projects and the health initiatives; they all need to happen too. And we certainly can’t start to believe that we can help everyone. But in the process let’s be careful not to step on the toes of those who are right next to us the whole time helping us along the way to make those things happen. Let’s remember that they have ideas and needs and dreams as well that won’t be fulfilled with the feathers we hand them while we focus on everyone else. Sometimes the ones who seem on the outside like they need the help the least may just be the ones who could do the most good with the help that we’re willing to provide if we’re willing to include them in the process as fellow human beings. The sexiest path to benevolence may often exclude the ones that helped us get there so let us be wary about taking it. Instead, let’s seek to take a path whose destination is unsure but is full of people that we can lift up with our presence as we are lifted by theirs.

Tell me your story. What feathers do we allow to go to waste in this world? Which ones do we need to stop giving out? Are there any feathers that you’ve been clinging to in hopes that they would become wings?

Let Your Soul Poop Its Pants

We sat down to eat recently with my family here in Haiti as my roommate’s 2-year-old daughter, Bevycka ran in the room saying “M’ap priye, M’ap priye!” “You’re going to pray for us before we eat, Bevycka?” I confirmed. “Wi!” She said excitedly. It was clear that she was feeling moved by the Spirit on that night. She started off her prayer with the sign of the cross as her aunts had so carefully taught her, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… My soul… just pooped its pants.” Her dad yelled “Amen!” And all the rest of us echoed, “Amen!” before bursting into laughter. It was clear that Bevycka had every good intention of asking a blessing for our meal, but her train of thought changed course dramatically shortly after taking off and she felt she had a more important announcement to make. And yet, in her innocence, Bevycka had expressed a kind of beautifully gross perception of the human soul that I am discovering more and more to be apt in describing those moments in life where our soul is taken by surprise and all of the emotion and life that it was full of at the moment simply can’t be held in. It has no idea what it is experiencing and has no control over how it reacts. Poets may say it many ways. Our soul bursts. Our soul floods. Our soul tumbles into a euphoric elysium. But to Bevycka, our soul just poops its pants.

And ever since she said that, I’ve found extra joy in life as I search for these moments to acknowledge knowing that when they happen, remembering Bevycka’s words will bring a slightly wider smile to my face.

In fact, my soul has been quite incontinent lately due to some new friends made that my soul has known for a long time. I believe everyone has those moments where you encounter someone who is unknown to your physical self, but somewhere in your soul, you know that it’s not really the first time you’ve met, it’s as if you’ve always been close. And lately I’ve had a string of these encounters that each time they happen, my soul can’t help itself. My mouth says “Hi, I’m Lee. It’s great to meet you,” and extends a cordial handshake. But my soul freaks out and screams, “It’s YOU! I’ve been waiting for you for so long! Let’s go get a drink and catch up on old times,” and grabs the other soul ferociously embracing them like a prodigal son. My friends and I have been having this conversation a lot lately about how wonderful it is to have just met someone and feel like it was all just meant to be. Not in that silly romantic kind of we-were-born-to-be-together kind of way, but in that greater spiritual unity sort of way where two supposed strangers can realize that there’s something greater knitting them together beyond what their current physical experience suggests. And in those moments when you realize that, you just gotta admit shamelessly that your soul just pooped its pants. Although it almost comes as something existentially expected, it still overwhelms you and pushes your soul to it’s brink of fullness.

It’s a similar experience when Mother Nature takes me by surprise and slaps me in the face with her beauty. There’s a ridge of cliffs in my area here in Haiti, in a zone called Losier that sit well beyond the beaten path far enough away from the community’s main services that not many people live there and the ground is rocky enough that not much farming can be done. But every once in a while it’s worth taking the hike out to them to remind my soul why it still dwells here, in this body and this body in this place on the earth. Even though I’ve been there plenty of times, every new time I go and take that final step over the rocks and through the yucca plants and get hit by the extraordinary view and the steady, invigorating breeze, my soul still poops its pants. Straight ahead you can look out over the city of Jacmel and the turquoise blue bay that the city sits on fading out to a brilliant aquamarine as it expands into the Caribbean Sea. Down in the valley to the south lays Bassin Bleu with its delicate series of waterfalls and crystal clear pools. Underneath the sound of the breeze you can hear the waterfalls rushing and waves of the sea crashing. Running into the sea between Bassin Blue and the city coming from between the hills to the north is the Gooseline River snaking its way through the sandy earth and spotted palm trees. And off to the east beyond all of this are the many more mountains of the country, layered one behind another until they disappear into the distance, some reaching high up into the clouds where you can’t see their peaks. I’ve mentioned, somewhat jokingly, before about how I would love to build a spiritual retreat center up here on these cliffs as a place for people to come pray, meditate, re-center, rejuvenate, and be inspired. It would be perfect (and there’s even land for sale). And I think that this is exactly what the slogan of just a place should be: Losier Spiritual Retreat Center – Come Stay with Us and Let Your Soul Poop Its Pants. IMG_1787

And as I’ve been thinking of writing the blog post, I was thinking back to times that my soul has possibly pooped its pants in the past, before Bevycka ever pointed out that it was possible. One moment that immediately popped into my head, and my readers will have to excuse me for being an art nerd here, was at the Des Moines Art Center one day and it was the first time that I had come upon the painting by Jean Dubuffet entitled Villager with Close Cropped Hair. I’ve seen a lot of incredible art in my days, and there are plenty of pieces that have had an impact on me when seeing them in person for the first time, but this one made my soul erupt. I’d studied Dubuffet for a long time, seen his pieces in books and online, and even seen some of his other later works in person at other museums, but this one was so viscerally raw and powerful that it absolutely devoured me when I looked at it. My soul completely and shamelessly pooped its pants, and it felt good. Real good. I was going to include a link to the painting but it wouldn’t be the same. If you want to see what I’m talking about, call the Des Moines Arts Center and ask if they have it on display currently. If they do, drive there, from wherever you are, and go see it. Do your soul a favor.

So what’s my point with all of these stories? It’s not good to hold it in. It’s not healthy. We need to search for those opportunities for release and we need to embrace them as an essential part of survival in this messy world that we live in. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the spiritual process that’s happening inside our souls at those moments because we try to control it, we try to resist. But we need accept the freedom that our soul searches for in those experiences and just let it go. Sometimes we need to become more like a child, and channel the inhibition that would allow a 2-year-old to thank God for the pants pooping experiences that our souls encounter in this day to day life.

So tell me, when was the last time your soul pooped its pants? Let’s share.