Home > Uncategorized > The Danger of Being Swept Along

The Danger of Being Swept Along

Do not allow yourself to be overcome by evil, but rather, overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

I have been thinking a lot lately of the way in which American culture (maybe just consumerism) shapes the way in which many of us conceive of happiness and the default life we seek to live: more things, more comfort, etc. To live life unreflectively is to live life in this way. (Although I am sure this way of thinking/living is pervasive across society and particularly the well-off, I am speaking here mostly of myself as a white male from a comfortable background. I speak as one who is privileged, as one who already has comfort, support, education, etc.). I have nothing profound to say on this topic, but the writings of Pedro Arrupe (superior general of the Jesuits from 1965-1983) have challenged me to keep thinking about this theoretically and practically. A couple short passages:

In a talk on racial discrimination and inequality in America, Arrupe quotes a 1949 instruction from his predecessor as superior general John Baptist Jannssens. In the passage Jannssens describes the situation of the lower classes and concludes by juxtaposing this with those who are well-off socially and economically: “and at the same time [to be in this lower class is] to behold…the very people for whom one works, abounding in riches, enjoying superfluous comforts, devoting themselves to liberal studies and fine arts, loaded with honors, authority, and praise” (“Interracial Apostolate” in Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, 156). Comfort, time for study and leisure, honors, authority, praise: to what extent are these my highest desires if I am honest with myself?

In the context of doing “works of justice,” Arrupe describes the need to have “a firm resolve never to profit from, or allow ourselves to be suborned by, positions of power deriving from privilege, for to do so, even passively, is equivalent to active oppression. To be drugged by the comforts of privilege is to become contributors to injustice as silent beneficiaries of the fruits of injustice” (“Men and Women for Others,” 179). It is precisely this “being drugged” that I am trying to understand more fully. One way in which this manifests itself is the way in which we compare ourselves to others. It is incredibly easy to look around and see others that have so much more than I have. Seeing others with more has two effects on me: sometimes it strengthens my desire for more – I want that too; other times it ideologically comforts and soothes me – at least I do not have as much as some people. It is easy in this case to ignore my privileged existence and sooth myself with the knowledge that as a graduate student and future professor in America I am not “rich.” Of course, if I take a more global perspective  and recognize that compared to the world as a whole I am at the top economically, socially, and in terms of education, can I be described as anything but rich?

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  1. Andrew
    January 8, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’ve struggled with these issues too. I like your suggestion about how different things may appear depending on one’s perspective: in the U.S., being grad students in theology hardly puts us in the upper echelon, economically, and yet, relative to many people in the U.S., but also especially elsewhere, we are actually in a position of extraordinary privilege.

    The really hard question, which I don’t have an answer for, and which I don’t expect you to answer–it’s just an open question–is what do we do with this situation of privelege? How can we extricate ourselves from, or even begin to challenge, the economic disparity which exists on such a large scale? What attitude should we have toward seemingly innocuous sources of comfort (packs of sugar, tennnis shoes, etc.) which also function as pieces of a global system, founded in the colonial era, which reduces a considerable proportion of the world’s population to a state of life-threatening poverty?

    Sometimes I wonder to what extent voluntary poverty needs to be recommended more broadly, and not just to those taking religious vows, as a response to this problem. But part of me also wants to hold onto the idea that comfort is not necessarily a bad thing; the question then becomes, how to extend comfort to those who most need it? Perhaps both ways of looking at things are important. But I’m still very much struggling to sort through these kinds of questions.

  2. Todd Walatka
    January 8, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Andrew,

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately but as you expected I don’t have much of an answer for you. Comfort and enjoying God’s creation are certainly not inherently bad. What worries me is when this simple and true statement becomes an excuse to have the pursuit of more goods and comforts be the actual goal of our lives (and one of my suspicions is that an unreflective life in our context leads to this being the case).

    I just put up a follow-up quote from Arrupe. A simple step that I am trying to follow is in his first piece of advice: “Men and women who, instead of feeling compelled to acquire everything that their friends have will do away with many of the luxuries which in their social set have become necessities, but which the majority of humankind must do without.” In other words, the question is: what is actually a matter of need and basic comfort and what is a matter of what one assumes one needs because of one’s privileged social location.

    This, of course, still does not answer your question on the small or large scale (although I do think it is helpful for thinking through choices). On the small scale, what is “necessary,” what is “excessive?” My students (and I) struggled with this a great deal at the end of the semester. Again, and maybe I speak more for myself here, I think that our suspicion should generally be that we think too much is “necessary.” The larger scale is even harder. Something like buying fair trade or from a farmer’s market seems like a small yet positive step on a personal level; vocationally I see this playing out in a way similar to your post on Ellacuría and the university. I am very happy that I spent the last unit in my Foundations course on poverty. Hopefully a few of the business/science/engineering majors (most of my students) will think a bit differently about the world and their place within it (it is noteworthy that Arrupe’s talk “Men and Women for Others” was on Jesuit education).

    At this point, I think the first step of simple realization (“honesty with the real”) is immensely important. I am not sure what the next step is but the first one has to be avoiding what Arrupe calls being “drugged” by the comforts of privilege.

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