Sunday, June 15, 2014

Living for others

This is an article thinking about your utility to society and to others at the hour of deciding upon a career path.  It regards the idea of simply doing what you love to do as a somewhat selfish and elitist conceit.  Selfish because it doesn't take into account how your work might best help others, and elitist because most people in society do not in fact have the luxury of deciding upon a career path based on their own interests, but rather have to get work where they can in order to fulfill their financial obligations to family.  I think the analysis is pretty accurate; of course you shouldn't work in something that makes you miserable if you have some choice in the matter, but neither should you just seek your own enjoyment and self-realization in your work.  We're all part of some social collective, from family to neighborhood to nation-state to the human race, and in order for everything to work, we should all be thinking about how to serve the collective.  This would be true even in a well-functioning, universally prosperous world, since someone would still have to fight fires, or manage businesses, or treat illness, or prepare food.  The fact that we live in a world that is still rife with problems and want and injustice means it is even more crucial for all of us to work toward a better future.

This point is repeatedly made in a book my son and I recently read, Liberation Theology by Gustavo Gutierrez.  This is the original work that laid out a coherent theology of solidarity and human liberation, capturing and summarizing trends that had already been playing out in Latin America in the mid-20th century and galvanizing the thinking and action behind this way of living Christianity.  I would like to do a more in-depth review and reflection on this book in a future blog.  But for now I will just say that a central point is that, in the Christian worldview, the rightful vocation of humanity is to draw closer to communion with God through service and solidarity among human beings.  Liberation theology claims that this process of communion with other people and with God occurs not just on an individual basis, but as a historical process over time, as humankind progresses to ever-higher levels of thought and technology (and ideally of solidarity and justice).  I'm not sure if I agree with this modernist, directional vision of time or human progress, because it seems that improvements in living standards and in how we treat one another are often circular, not linear. 

Another point Gutierrez makes is that this human progress, this realization of the Kingdom of God through the reduction of suffering and injustice, is the true measure of our fulfilling God's vocation for humanity.  If this is so, it totally reframes the old debates among religions, or philosophies, or even science vs. faith.  No, in liberation theology, the only relevant question for humans and for God is whether we are on the side of justice and human liberation, or of injustice and oppression.  Our work to bring about the Kingdom of God is the only relevant factor that determines our salvation or our sin.  Not our fulfillment of doctrinal requirements, or our use of or advocacy for or against science, or our belief in capitalism or Communism or any other ideology. 

Closer to home, I am seeing the importance of service to others in guiding young people in their career choices.  One of our children back in Colombia has been struggling in university.  He can't quite find what he wants to do, and I don't know if it's because of this or just poor study habits that he ends up getting bad grades in a few courses every semester.  At the same time, a grammar-school friend of his recently committed suicide.  The kid left a note via Facebook that basically said he'd been bullied all his life, from when he was little right through to college.  He claimed he'd striven his entire life not to hurt or inconvenience others, and frankly didn't understand why others had consistently ganged up on him.  He saw his suicide as the last assertion of his freedom to act as he wished, to reject ill treatment by others. 

I can't ever see suicide as something noble or desireable, but the plaintive call for basic human decency by this young man struck a chord with my wife and myself.  Something like that reinforces my natural impulse to serve and protect the weakest among us.  If I or anyone is able with their work and their daily actions to prevent such a life from being squelched out by intolerance or aggression, to allow others to realize their full potential, then that person will surely have done something worthwhile.

So if our young charge is seeking direction in his life, I hope the tragedy of his friend's suicide might serve to inspire him.  The question he should be asking himself is, "What can I do to help others?  How can I best serve the world, and in the process allow others to do the same?"

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