I have a sticker on my car that reads: “We can not cure the world of sorrow but we can choose to live in joy”—Joseph Campbell. Although I live my life that way most of the time, I struggle with feelings of hopelessness, frustration and deep sadness when I think of the terrible imbalance on this planet. The famine, disease and abuse that my fellow humans endure is unbearable. I have a blessed life and am grateful for what I have. But what can I, as a part-time checker in a grocery store, do to make the world a better place? How can I feel good about abundance when others have so little?
Spiritually, in the moment that your awareness is raised of the tremendous need in the world, you have received a call from the universe to participate in putting an end to suffering. The first step in following that call is to transform your response to the problem.
Right now, you meet the news of other’s suffering with hopelessness, frustration and deep sadness. These emotions act as boundaries to keep you from bringing your gifts and talents to assist those in need. Why? Let’s puzzle that out together.
One possibility: Do you find that thoughts of other people’s suffering arise most often when your own life moves along smoothly? You may be using the poor and powerless to temper your joy because you secretly fear life cannot—and should not—be as good as it is for you. You may even believe that if your life gets better, some personal crisis will occur. So the tragic circumstance of others becomes the pill you take to temper your happiness.
Imagining that you can do nothing to help those in need is a way to stay immature, emotionally and spiritually. It’s akin to those who pass the homeless sleeping on the steps of St. Francis church downtown and mutter, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” In that moment they are absolving themselves of their responsibility in creating the circumstances that result in mentally ill people living on the streets of our community.
A mature spirituality understands that God acts through us. An immature spirituality believes that God has preferences (God likes you better than that homeless person and the proof is that you’re not homeless) and takes sides (sorry, President Bush). An immature spirituality also sees the problem as too big for one person to impact. But a mature spirituality understands that if the problem feels too big, it’s an invitation to expand into the spiritual, mental and emotional space necessary to solve the problem.
Now, let’s look at the Joseph Campbell quote. Rather than a license to ignore our ability to assist those in need, consider it an acknowledgement that sorrow may always exist. However, emotions are transitory, so we can make choices about which one we intend to live in. It is a valuable insight.
Rarely do we see change occur in the world through joy. Generally, there is anger, fear or hatred fueling public demands to heal public wounds. I imagine that if we entered those same public arguments (against war, homelessness, abortion, etc.) with a sense of purposeful joy, we would be clearer, kinder and more creative in instituting solutions.
But these are answers for those of us who are housed, fed, employed and secure. I would not tell a woman in the Sudan who has been raped by the Janjaweed militia, has seen her husband and eldest sons hacked to death and watched her children slowly starving that she needs to be joyful. It is my job to transform my burdensome emotions (and your task to process your own) so that I am capable of being present to lend a hand literally and financially to my brothers and sisters in need, especially in areas of the world that are suffering because of the choices I allow my country to make in my name.