Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Middle of Nowhere

Today Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq was visited by a young Iraqi man whose family raised more than twenty thousand dollars from contributors worldwide to pay for medicine for the hospitals and clinics at Fallujah. He has asked that CPT accompany the delivery of the supplies into the city. During his visit, he gave us the grim news that four people he knew have died in the last several days. The day before his visit the father of one of his friends became a target for kidnappers. When his friend’s father resisted, the kidnappers opened fire with their weapons, riddling his body with bullets. Our visitor had to help take the body to the morgue.

Later, another young man who is both a college student and a journalist visited us. He told us that a car bomb detonated within several hundred feet of his house. No one in his family was injured, but two people driving near the booby-trapped car were killed. The driver died instantly but the passenger died as the young man and friends tried to get him to a hospital.

Yesterday we met with an Iraqi human rights worker who documents issues of detainee abuse. He gave us information about a 13-year-old boy who is being detained along with information on inhumane living conditions at the Multi-National Force detention camps.

The ability to feel the pain of another human being is central to any kind of peace making work. But this compassion is fraught with peril. A person can experience a feeling of being overwhelmed. Or a feeling of rage and desire for revenge. Or a desire to move away from the pain. Or a sense of numbness that can deaden the ability to feel anything at all.

How do I stay with the pain and suffering and not be overwhelmed? How do I resist the welling up of rage towards the perpetrators of violence? How do I keep from disconnecting from or becoming numb to the pain?

After eight months with CPT, I am no clearer than I when I began. In fact I have to struggle harder and harder each day against my desire to move away or become numb. Simply staying with the pain of others doesn’t seem to create any healing or transformation. Yet there seems to be no other first step into the realm of compassion than to not step away.

“Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the nowhere place then compassion arises spontaneously” (The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron, pg. 120).

Being in the middle of nowhere really does create a very queasy feeling and yet so many spiritual teachers say it is the only authentic place to be. Not staking out any ground for myself creates the possibility of standing with anyone. The middle of nowhere is the one place where compassion can be discovered. The constant challenge is recognizing that my true country of origin is the middle of nowhere

Monday, April 04, 2005


With instructions from the airline to check in four hours prior to departure I had ample opportunity to explore the various nooks and crannies of the international terminal at O’Hare. On the north side of the terminal there was an exhibit of photographs from the “Material World” project commissioned by the Sierra Club in 1994. Sixteen photojournalists were sent world wide to interview families from thirty nations. After spending a week with the families the final project was to take all their belongings, all their “stuff”, outdoors for a photo-op with the family. Reviewing statistical data and looking for those families who fit the “average” category in terms of material goods for each country was the method of their selection.

I didn’t have access to the book but looking at the pictures it seemed as if the clear winner in the “stuff” category was the family from Kuwait with a close second being either the family from Japan or the family from my country, the United States.

I got to wondering how they would look if these pictures could be updated to reflect the “stuff” breakdown of 2005. One thing seemed clear to me was that the family from 1994 Iraq would definitely be well above the average in terms of “stuff” in 2005. With an estimated 30% unemployment rate recent economic surveys have shown that what was before the U.S. invasion in 2003 one of the more prosperous countries in the region is now ranked in the bottom 10% in the world in terms of economic output. Iraq is now in the same category with Haiti and Bangladesh.

I also wondered if families from the top three have more “stuff” now? I noted the U.S. family in 1994 didn’t have a computer, cell phones or a DVD player. I would expect a 2005 average U.S. family might have all of those plus the second car in the photo might have turned into an SUV.

We in the United States comprise 3% of the world’s population yet we consume 22% of the world’s natural resources. The word jumps to my mind when thinking about that statistic is “greed”. Does my president’s stated goal of “spreading freedom and democracy” really mean getting other nations to borrow, spend and consume like us? That goal is fine as long as we can find a way to replicate the earth five or six times and use these replicated earths just as a source of natural resources and not try and live on them.

While I’m convinced that there is an infinite amount of spiritual resources in the universe there is clearly a finite amount of material resources. How we share those finite resources is a critical part of creating the Peaceable Realm. Unless we in the U.S. can find intentional ways of letting go of some of our “stuff” so that others have enough “stuff” for the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter a world of peace will continue to elude us.