Normally, I would call myself an optimist. I have a natural conviction in the achievability of a just and loving world. And yet last week, as I pondered what had happened in Haiti and what it meant for the viability of that vision, I found my faith rocked to its core.
As I poured over images and accounts coming from Haiti, a swell of shame and despair arose in me the likes of which any optimist (or leader for that matter) would be embarrassed to admit. Like so many of us who felt the reverberations of the quake round the world, I found myself examining my own life, questioning my basic assumptions, and even (oh blasphemy) the prudence of my work.
To me, the tragedy within the tragedy of Haiti is not just the human lives lost and the crumbling of a country, but that it was all so utterly predictable and preventable. The quake itself did not cause such death and destruction, the impoverished infrastructure did. If our global society had any combination of intelligence and compassion, wouldn’t it have found a way to avoid the catastrophic consequences? And if sheer moral necessity isn’t enough, what of the fact that the geopolitical entity we call “Haiti” is a completely unnatural phenomenon, created solely for the rich world’s benefit? Are we that dumb, that selfish, that shortsighted…and what combination of the three?
The answer is clearly yes. The way our world works is more often than not dumb, selfish, and shortsighted. This we already knew, and what happened in Haiti just gave us the gut-wrenching human images that help us to internalize the consequences. The problem is in this very moment those same consequences are going on around the world – albeit less dramatically. And in this very moment, a dozen more tragedies of similar if not worse magnitude loom on the horizon.
Of course, we are just human beings. On an individual basis, our capacity for compassion only extends so far. We cannot count on individuals to anticipate every crisis, remedy every wrong, and respond to every need. And yet, isn’t that what systems and institutions are for? In recognition of individual limitations, how have we not developed and empowered the institutions necessary to protect our most simple and sacred of principles?
And so goes the path of questioning I found myself on in the past week, probably not unlike many of us. For a few days, I admittedly found myself struggling with the question of whether the change I’m seeking is even pragmatically possible. I asked myself what all the struggle is for if it can all come crashing down in an ugly testimony to our global shortsightedness. In the midst of the shame and grief, I even asked myself if I may be happier by not even trying. In this world of optimism and change, those thoughts are sacrilege.
And yet, we’ve all found ourselves in moments like these. It’s part of the process of reconciling the world we want with the world we live in. To make it through such times, we often have no option but to turn to the words of those wiser than we. On this national holiday, it’s a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King’s legacy that to recognize the role that his words continue to play in the internal struggles of so many of us seekers.
For me personally, King’s words on the human struggle for a loving world are the first I turn to when in need of clarity or solace. To me his brilliance lies in the way that he never told anyone anything new, but rather elucidated the truths they always already knew. If you find yourself struggling with any of the questions I asked above, perhaps you will, like me, find your answer within yourself through the words of these timeless passages.
"All I’m saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."
"When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
Long live the King.