Monday, December 27, 2010

Searching For El Dorado

Warning:  The following blog entry contains material that is, in some cases, less than positive.  Discretion is advised.

As I’ve mentioned before, I currently live in the heart of a large city called Managua, Nicaragua.  Managua is known for a number of things, including, but not limited to, its large size, lack of cleanliness, loud decibel level, and perhaps most notably, it’s especially hard exterior. As for the reasons behind such a reputation, I imagine there are a great number of social and economic factors contributing to the overall vibe or feel of the city, but as I’ve pondered the general way of life around here, I’ve always viewed it as a direct result of one primary factor: lack of resources. What I mean is that there simply isn’t ENOUGH.  There aren’t enough jobs.  There isn’t enough space…enough money….enough transportation…enough time…enough lanes….enough housing….enough….well, you get the point.  For those of us from the large nation to the north, this is perhaps a bit difficult to understand contextually.  We are accustomed to an unparalleled amount of excess available on a 24/7 basis.  Here in the second poorest nation in the hemisphere (umm, at this time, I’d like to give a special shout out to Haiti for taking first place yet another year), the word PLENTY as it pertains to resources is, well, foreign.

I first noticed this dynamic shortly after arriving to Nicaragua several years ago.  I remember being pushed and shoved (i.e. assaulted physically) while trying to get on and off the bus at rush hour.  “Man!, I thought, I think that Managua could use a few more buses in the fleet!  This is a free for all!”    From there though, I realized that the buses were not an isolated factor.  In most areas of life, it’s a more openly Darwinian system.  That is, in daily life and the pursuit of liberty and happiness (and perhaps a monthly paycheck), its survival of the fittest.

I’ve been thinking about this over the last few weeks, as I’ve watched the calendar slowly making its way towards the season known for, among other things, peace, joy, and the spirit of giving.  And in the midst of pondering such traits as charity and goodwill towards those in the immediate vicinity, I’ve been thinking about how the old Golden Rule fits into such a system as one found in Managua.  Unfortunately, upon first glance, I’m not sure that it does.

Isn’t there ANYONE who understands what Christmas is all about??   

--Charlie Brown  

 We’ve all heard the stories of the charitable organizations or religious institutions that fail to conduct their affairs in a manner considered to be in alignment with their overall mission or purpose.  Perhaps we shouldn’t hold such organizations to the higher standard they openly represent.  It just seems natural to do so.  Maybe it is for that reason that we find it particularly shocking or disturbing when they fail to live up to their stated objectives.  I’ll give you a recent example.  I have a friend who helps run a relatively large NGO here in Managua.  We’ve spent a number of meals and discussion groups together, mulling over such topics as social justice, helping the poor, the environment, the evils of multinational corporations, and the numerous factors that lead to a cruel and unjust world.  I mean this guy is a person that CERTAINLY falls under the category of “socially conscious”, and I’ve typically found myself to be in agreement with his previously shared views, beliefs, and opinions.  But recently, while working a bit more closely with this individual and his organization, I witnessed three examples that made me stop and shake my head.  First there was the failure to pay an employee a relatively large sum of money owed to them by the organization.  The debt was the direct result of an error made by the administrative staff, and the organization did acknowledge the error on their part.  Beyond that though, no amends were made (i.e. nobody got paid), and the matter was closed.  For fear of losing their job, the employee remained silent as well.  Next came the hiring of a NEW employee (positive).  Everything looked good until my friend expressed his desire to pay the recent recruit “under the table” in order to avoid responsibility for the basic benefits allotted to all full time employees in Nicaragua (not so positive).  And finally, upon visiting one of the local projects, the friend commented on the fact that he didn’t like a particular characteristic of one of the staff members.  “Yea, I’m going to replace her”, he mentioned flippantly, as if she were the batteries in the remote control.

Christmas time is here, families drawing near

Oh that we could always see such spirit through the year

Unfortunately, I’ve since come to find out that these were not isolated events, and I’ve subsequently lost a great deal of respect for this individual and his organization.  I mean sure they have the correct numbers on their donor reports, and all of the decimals at the bottom of their spreadsheets line up correctly at the end of each year.  They even have particularly noble and virtuous objectives covering their walls, corporate documents, website, etc.  But to me, when you fail to treat others (including employees) with a basic level of respect, dignity, and fairness, you have, somewhere along the line, taken a step in the wrong direction.  And for that reason, the nobility associated with such things as your stated purpose, fundraising propaganda, or impressive number of stars making up your organization’s charity rating, take on very little meaning.  As is always the case, the actions speak louder than words.

On a different level, I have another acquaintance that has spent most of the year working in various “call centers” of the foreign-owned-and-operated variety.  To be more specific, she’s on the third one in the last 10 months or so, and the continual change is generally a result of poor and unfair working conditions.  The managers of such companies have one objective in mind, and that is to MAKE AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE.  The employees are virtually unskilled and can therefore be exploited and replaced with relative ease.  Remember, we are living in a country with an unemployment rate of approximately 60-70 percent.  Regardless of the position in which one is working, there is ALWAYS a line of people behind them willing to perform their duties for less of SOMETHING.  It’s a system that lends itself to a high level of exploitation, and it is the same system that influences the practices of the aforementioned charity.

So my telemarketing acquaintance does what anyone in her shoes would most likely do, namely finds herself on a continual search for the place that will compensate her with the most and treat her the best.  And you know, I hate to hear the stories she tells me.  They really do treat her and her colleagues in a way that is demeaning both on a professional and personal level.  She, of course, finds no enjoyment or satisfaction in being on the receiving end of such treatment, and who could blame her?  But here’s the $100,000 question: What does SHE do as a result of such treatment?  I’m not asking whether or not she goes in search of a different call center to spend her days.  That question is already answered.  I’m asking how SHE treats those around HER?  Remember, I’m thinking about the golden rule here, and she’s certainly not being treated in the manner that she would like to be treated.  So if SHE were to find herself in the position of one of her not-so-virtuous managers, for example, how would SHE run the show?  Well, you want to know the answer?  I’ll tell you.  Exactly the same way….or WORSE!  You see, when she heads home at the end of the day, she IS a manager of sorts.  I know this, because there just happens to be a guy who works in and around the house she shares with her family.  And you wouldn’t believe how she treats this guy!  She belittles him.  She insults him.  She demands service like you couldn’t imagine!  It’s truly incredible.  She literally treats the guy like yesterday’s garbage.  I can’t even be around this and continually have to leave the room!  Golden rule?  Nope, it’s not here either.

Surely he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease

So how about this one?  Just for the sake of comparison, let’s just take a look at the extreme end of the spectrum.  That is, how about taking a look at those on the LOWEST level of society; the ones on the bottom; the poorest of the poor.  If there is a system of exploitation that functions in a top-down direction, the buck would have to stop with them, right?  There’s nowhere else for it to go.  So if they were treated poorly by the rest of society and understand such treatment better than ANYONE else in the hierarchy, how would THEY respond? 

I know what psychology says.  It says that those who find themselves on the receiving end of any given type of mistreatment or abuse are very likely to mistreat or abuse others in the future.  It’s the classic chain in which the “abusEE” eventually converts into the “abusER”.  But surely that wouldn’t happen with respect to my aforementioned question, would it?  Well, I’ll say this.  I’ve spent the last several years working with the group identified as the “poorest of the poor”, the group that often gets credited with being “poor but happy”.  It’s the group that puts on a nice smile for the visiting missionary groups, gets subsequently passed around the US in photographic form, and inevitably becomes a source of inspiration to their over-materialized neighbors to the north for “being so wonderful” and “just so happy and content” in spite of “having so little”! 

And the answer is?????  Put another one on the board for psychology.  Angry.  Mean.  Belligerent.  Petty.  Disrespectful.  Greedy.  Ungrateful.  Demanding.  Abusive.  Violent.   Vindictive.  You’ll have to forgive me.  I really don’t want to insult anyone here, and I do want to remain compassionate and understanding with respect to their situation and the histories that contribute directly to the resulting characteristics.  I’m well aware of such principles as “the sins of the fathers” and “the cycle of poverty” and the affects that such factors have on future generations.  But at the same time, I’ve got to be honest.  I’m going to call a spade a spade.  And in this case, we are looking at one angry little spade.

Maybe it wouldn’t be much consolation, but I wish I could say that the aforementioned characteristics were only expressed in an upward direction (i.e. UP the economic ladder).  This is the same community though that is unable to leave houses unattended for 5 minutes for fear that the NEIGHBORS will (and do) come over and claim all earthly possessions for themselves.  Maybe it’s just the ugly reality of poverty or, I don’t know, an exposed version of the humanity found within us all.  Whatever it is, it’s ANYTHING but GOLDEN.

Silent night, Holy night; All is calm, All is bright

So as the lights are hung and the trees decorated this year, I’m left wondering if anyone remembers that little rule of the golden variety.  I’ve actually been told that here in Managua, it’s every man/woman for themselves.  People have literally told me that although it may not sound so virtuous, that’s simply the way it is.  But does it really have to be? Perhaps I have to believe it as a fact of everyday life, but do I have to accept it?  Is the kill or be killed (or as they say down here….eat or be eaten) law of the jungle the only way?  Are we left with no other option, and if so, are we going to be happy with the result?

As I share my less than positives opinions here, I need to say that I’m certainly not writing from the height of my pedestal.   I often find myself wanting to follow the law of the land.  As I tire of being the pushEE on the bus, in traffic, or waiting in “line” to make a simple purchase, I’ll admit that I want nothing more than to be the pushER.   In all honesty, I get tired of the whole thing.  I get tired of everyONE fighting everyone ELSE for everyTHING.  I get tired of witnessing those on the receiving end of truly beautiful acts of charity or generosity turn around and steal from/take advantage of/exploit the next person that comes along (for those of you Bible readers, see Matthew 18:23+).  Golden rule nothing, it’s every man for himself!  And after a while, I, like everyone else, begin to push back.

At the end of the day though, I don’t want to give up, because I know there’s a better way out there.  Like that Mahatma character, I’ll do everything I can to continue trying to be the change I want to see in the world.  I’ll choose to follow the lead of the lady that let me and my single item go in front of her at the grocery store this past year.  And what about that guy who helped me out when I was walking home with the non-functional motorcycle the year before that?  These people and their small but significant random acts of kindness will serve as inspiration in the city where similar acts are the overwhelming exception.  Despite the fact that I don’t succeed on a daily basis, I’ll continue in my attempt to treat others in the manner in which I want to be treated.  After all, in this complex and often complicated world in which we live, that’s about as simple as it gets.

And with that, I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas.  Whether you’re at home for the holidays or experiencing something a little less traditional, I encourage you to focus a little energy in the outward direction.  As for me, I’ll be down south this year, celebrating a slightly more tropical holiday season.  There probably won’t be any of the white stuff outside the window, but whatever the temperature may be, you can rest assure that I’ll be on my search for El Dorado.