Tag Archive | "Charles Dickens"

Wealth in Poverty

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To Jesus in the Gospel of Saint Luke is attributed the expression “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  For me and, I am certain, most others, the thought of impoverishment is anything but a “blessed” state in which to find oneself, whether one’s poverty is material or spiritual.  And so, is Jesus telling his audience to hang in there and suffer in this life to be rewarded in the hereafter?  Perhaps, but I think not.


I believe that the meaning has more to do about the nature of poverty, rather than its earthly manifestations.  One who is impoverished lacks the resources to adequately provide for himself and, by extension, others dependent upon him.  These resources are in part material, like money and property, but also spiritual, as in strength, confidence, vigor, and other intangible assets.


Those in the throes of poverty are emptied of all resources, like a once overflowing stream reduced to a trickle by a lengthy drought.  Bereft of most forms of sustenance including, in many cases, their human dignity, the impoverished cannot be said to live so much as exist.  Surely, no one would willingly submit to such an existence.


And yet, the state of impoverishment can be a “blessing,” depending upon your perspective.  In common understanding, wealth is synonymous with material gain and pride in achievement or station in life.  To be and to remain “wealthy,” however, requires maintenance, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  How many of us have come to the realization that our material possessions own us?  How mentally and physically draining is it to preserve one’s reputation, image, or area of expertise?  How often has ego, born of confidence and unrealistically high personal expectations, limited our abilities to relate on a purely human level with others?


Wealth creates its own baggage in life and, like the links of the chain borne by Jacob Marley’s ghost in Charles Dickens’ classic – “A Christmas Carol,” its weight can grow over time, robbing its possessors of the freedom that they believe it provides them.  Poverty, in contrast, can be liberating.  Unfettered from concerns about possessions and social standing, the impoverished, emptied spirit can humbly seek new opportunities, form new opinions, and establish new relationships.  It is this “blessed” state of poverty that I believe Jesus was establishing as a condition for those seeking initiation into the “kingdom of God.”


As so often is the case, meaning in life is defined by contradiction.  In weakness, one is strong.  Through despair comes hope and compassion.  In humility, one is glorified.  In poverty, one gains true wealth.

Think for Yourself

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Think for Yourself

Among the ways that we as humans define ourselves and each other is by attaching labels and identifying with groups.  Once labeled or identified, however, are we then forever defined by these self-proclaimed descriptions or the groups with which we have chosen to affiliate?  Must we then perpetually fall in lockstep with the thinking or ideology of our label or group?


The question is not merely one of semantics, but is among the most fundamental and serious issues facing our country.  On Election night 2008, then President-Elect Barack Obama proclaimed that “change has come to America.”  But, with deference to the President, change is no stranger to America or, for that matter, life.  Often incremental, sometimes cataclysmic, change does not need to be ushered in like guests at a wedding.  It is, rather, a constant in our nation’s and our own life experiences; perhaps, the one constant in a seemingly chaotic world.


Yet, if one views the American political landscape over the course of the last several Presidential election cycles, it appears that nothing ever changes.  Our “two-party system” is alive, well, and a formidable impediment to any meaningful compromise between the more conservative Republican Party and the more liberal Democrat Party.  The United States has become nothing more than a collection of “red states” and “blue states” with policy and legislation dictated by the party in power at the particular time and place.


And, as one would expect, our citizenry mirrors the polarization of our political parties.  Fueled, in part, by the plethora of cable news sources, talk radio programs, publications, and Websites espousing particular political ideologies, individuals ally themselves with particular points of view and read, listen, or watch only those publications, sites, programs, or networks with which they are in agreement ideologically.  By excluding consideration of points of view with which they disagree, they become more entrenched in their own beliefs and less likely to consider other points of view, no matter how meritorious or innovative.


Why we as Americans continue, in most elections, to limit ourselves to serious consideration of only two candidates is a matter steeped in history, tradition, and exclusionary election laws.  Yet, in democratic countries where multiple political parties exist and are viable, those parties, of necessity, must form coalitions in order to effectively govern – dictating that ideas out of the political mainstream are brought to the public awareness and receive some level of consideration.


Of course, given the nature of the labels with which most of our electorate have branded themselves, the likelihood of new political parties gaining viability in the near future seems extremely unlikely.  With more than half of the general electorate and a considerably larger percentage of likely voters identifying themselves as either Conservative or Liberal/Progressive, the polarization of American political culture appears deeply-rooted.


But, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Are there Conservatives out there who are “pro-choice” or Liberals who are “pro-life?”  Are there other people like myself who are conservative economically, yet believe that universal healthcare is not simply a moral decision but also a national security imperative?  Must Progressives believe in not merely the factual authenticity of global climate change, but also that it is a man-created problem?  In short, can’t we all, regardless of how we label ourselves, think independently and seriously consider alternatives without regard to the labels attached to particular proposals?


In the early and middle nineteenth century, our country was viewed as a “grand experiment,” a “laboratory” in which the then radical ideas of freedom and democracy could be tested.  Visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens came to witness firsthand and chronicle its growth.  In his classic text, Democracy in America, de Tocqueville analyzes the reasons for the success of republican representative democracy in America, contrasting it with failures in other countries.  He also discusses threats to democracy, one of which he terms the “tyranny of the majority.”


In the polarized America of today, partisanship and de Tocqueville’s “tyranny” are alive and well.  With most votes in both houses of Congress falling along party lines, our nation is being driven by ideology run amok.  What we need are more truly independent thinkers among our legislators, citizenry, and leaders, people motivated by the common good rather than self-interest who can tackle the problems facing us and innovate uniquely American solutions.


In the 1983 movie, War Games, a young computer whiz hacks into a Defense Department computer system and begins a simulation game that could ultimately trigger a global thermonuclear war.  Once begun, the computer attempts to win the game and start World War III by producing false enemy missile launch images.  In a scene near the film’s conclusion, the designer of the system attempts to dissuade the general in charge of the facility from believing the images he is viewing are real.  Begging him to use his own reasoning and intelligence rather than letting a machine dictate his actions, the designer states “do the world a favor and stop acting like one [a machine].”


Similarly, I believe that it is time that all Americans cease blindly responding to labels and party affiliations.  Renounce your partisanship, consider many different viewpoints, and, most importantly, think for yourself.  If you do so, we will all benefit. 

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