“I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.” – John 10:10
That quote has always been one of my favorite sayings of Jesus. Over the past few weeks I’ve been contemplating it a bit, and encouraging others to do so as well. Life for me has been complicated but undeniably rich – full – since I began the African adventure I am currently embarked on. So I think it’s about time for just a stream of consciousness posting about that.
By most measures I am a very fortunate man these days. I have just come back from a second spontaneous tour of some of the legendary places of beauty which South Africa has to offer, this time traveling just inland from the northwest coast, up to the Namibian border, to look at the seasonal display of spring wild flowers. This is a pastime of wealthier South Africans, akin to the tradition of wealthier New Yorkers traveling up through New England to check out the foliage each autumn.
Along the way my love and I stopped at a couple of the seaside towns owned and operated by the De Beers diamond corporation, where we had to sign in for day passes at the edge of town before going in. The poverty there was nowhere near as bad as can be seen among farm laborers and the outlying townships (slums) around each of the major cities here, but it was still surprising, and on some level disturbing, to see how meager life can be for those who are involved in the production of these symbols of immense wealth and luxury for others. Then in between these two diamond mining towns there is a little fishing village free of such corporate control. They have a De Beers office and a freelance diamond prospecting cooperative of sorts, but those are small potatoes. Rumor has it that a few local residents have become millionaires from diamond finds recently, but most folks there seem to be eking out a living from whatever they could scrape together in the tourist, seafood and salvage industries.
Elsewhere we visited agricultural operations scattered among mountain plateaus and arid scrub land; growing rooibus for tea, sheep, cattle, vegetables and all manner of citrus fruit. We saw some signs of ostentatious wealth, some hard earned fruits of many generations’ labor, some ghosts of enterprises come and gone, some isolated subsistence communities scattered among immensely beautiful landscapes that children growing up there are unlikely to be able to appreciate, some laborers clearly cursed by traditions of alcohol as their major motivation to keep laboring, and some innovative approaches to continuing on with life as they know it among all sorts of people.
Some of the places we stayed at along the way could be considered primitive by many measures. Things I take for granted are not always present here, ranging from central heating and double glazed windows to basic plumbing and electrical connections. One place we stayed at was a charming little cottage with no electricity, just oil lamps and bottled gas powered appliances. Another place we stayed at was in many respects quite luxurious, with a large fire place which you could stick your head into and look up to see a couple square feet of blue sky above, but no flu mechanism to restrict the airflow through this opening all that cold and misty night. In many places we were the only guests, so they switched on their water heater as we arrived and warned us that it would be a couple hours or so until we’d have hot water for evening ablutions. Yet all of these places were impeccably clean and service was extremely friendly everywhere we went.
I don’t have any particular “financial security” or strong community ties, which are both blessings and curses. My children have now reached an age where they are theoretically responsible for themselves already, my current debts are few and my needs are simple. That mostly means that I have the freedom of nothing left to lose that Kris Kristofferson wrote his most famous lyrics about. That in turn produces many anxieties but many peak moments as well.
In many ways that is better and in many ways that is worse than what my new friend George here has. Some parts of what he has I envy; other parts I couldn’t imagine enduring myself. My guess is that he feels the same about what he knows of my life. George is the son of a poor bean farmer from a different African country. He is the father of two school-aged children and he has a wife with whom he is very much in love. He and his wife are here in Cape Town doing every form of work they can get, trying to support their children back in their home country and save enough to buy their own bean farm back in their homeland some day. Every couple of years or so they give themselves the luxury of taking the many days’ bus ride back to see their children. Meanwhile they keep plugging away here, living at peace with everyone, doing what they are told and taking whatever they can get by honest means. They are not considered to be “important enough” to be allowed to sit at the same table with those they serve, but they’re cool with that. Their life has its own richness and sense of purpose.
Like George I want to have good things for my children, even though I have nowhere near as much contact with them as I would like, on many levels. We each want our children to feel loved though, and to have the possibilities in turn of pursuing their own dreams and having children of their own. Beyond that we each want to have something that we can call our own which has value and which we can pass on to those we care about, who we will leave behind when our lives eventually end. We each want to be valued for what we have to offer, and to arrange to keep contributing something of value to the world around us for as long as possible. We each what to keep feel connected with and appreciated by a good woman, hard as that can be in practice in life as we know it. And beyond all that we each want to find little pleasures in life we can appreciate for what they are, making our day-to-day struggles that much more bearable. How successful each of us will be in these endeavors in the long run remains to be seen.
Aristotle speaks of the rich life – eudaimonia – as something so complex and individualized that you can never tell who’s has such and who doesn’t within their own lifetime even. That sort of rings true still today: we consider Shakespeare to have had a rich life and to have made the world a richer place for many, but during his own lifetime we might not have felt that way, and few would want to go back from our own day and age to experience all of the risks and discomforts of life in sixteenth century England exactly as the bard experienced it. So on what basis do we justify our meager efforts and our puny ambitions in this life?
It is no surprise that most people in our world choose to frame this question in religious terms. There is something much easier to grasp about seeking harmony with a benevolent and all-powerful creator than there is to seeking individual purpose within a random and otherwise meaningless world. But religion doesn’t entirely solve the problem of life’s purpose. There is still the thorny matter of reaching some viable conclusion about what God (by any name we care to call Him/Her/It) would want from us. Assuming that any particular tradition or revelation tells us everything we need to know about this matter not only requires an intense amount of ignorance and/or faith; it also leads many to particularly nasty conclusions about what they should be doing with their lives. (Along these lines my perspectives on this summer’s tragedy in Norway are still forthcoming.) Yet on the other hand if one takes the basic elements of Abrahamic faith and builds from there in a respectful manner the conclusions aren’t half bad.
What it comes down to is this: All of us are basically screwed up enough to require more than our own merits to get what we’re ultimately looking for in life. Some prefer to call the rest of what we need “a bit of luck”, but most figure there’s probably more to it than that. So we can try any number of scientific and/or superstitious programs to “improve our luck” or we can to one extent or another throw ourselves on the mercy of some higher power, which would be capable of not only improving our luck but also giving our lives a significance beyond the random series of events they are composed of. From there, if we can truly believe in this sort of merciful God, we can know one thing about him for sure: He wishes to show mercy on people who need it. So it follows from there that showing mercy and compassion on other people would be the clearest way of aligning ourselves with the way God operates.
Religions which follow this basic principle can tack on a whole bunch of other stuff as well. Some of it is a matter of random superstitious rituals to improve one’s luck, which are for the most part harmless, but not always. Some are moral principles for limiting the damage you do to others and yourself by living loose and careless. None of the holy books of established world religions contain a specific prohibition against drunk driving per se, but all of them contain codes of behavior with prohibitions of that sort relevant to their own age and culture. Many of these remain timelessly relevant, though not as many as fundamentalists in any given religion would insist. Then some religious content would be a matter of aesthetically pleasing and stimulating rituals to create a sublime, uplifting feeling and sense of community among those who have received the same mercy from God.
And then, sadly, we have a number of variations on the theme of “holy men” saying, “God has given me a message, to all of you tell you that if you want to receive his mercy first you have to kiss my ass.”
Sorting through all of these different claims coming from different religious traditions is an on-going process for me. I recognize the problems with many – actually all – of the forms of Christianity that I grew up with, but I still find the message of God’s mercy to be expressed most clearly and emphatically in the Biblical account. Yet I also see where the Bible reflects more than a little human savagery in places. Among other religious traditions I see much of the same: recognition of our need for God’s help on many levels, regardless of how little we happen to deserve it; a mixed bag of moral and ritual requirements with varying degrees of contemporary relevance; various leaders making dubious claims about their own importance, and interesting community building elements. Which of these traditions do the most harm and which do the most good in the long run, I’m really not in any position to say. What I can say is that anyone who is crying out for God’s mercy – regardless of whether or not it is according to my familiar tradition – who wants to pay that mercy forward to others in the form of basic kindness and compassion, and who isn’t trying to condemn me to hell for not following the letter of their own tradition, is someone I regard as a brother or a sister.
Beyond that, can I say that I have a rich life? In some ways it is still too soon to say. In other ways, complaint prone as I may be, I have to admit that I have quite a lot to be thankful for, and relatively little that I’m seriously entitled to grumble about. Now let’s see what I’m still able to do with what I’ve got.