After graduating from college I interned with a group called the Protection Project, collecting all the information I could find on human trafficking in Asia for their yearly report on the subject. Reading story after story of people coerced or mislead into slave-like existences was overwhelming sometimes, and I remember taking regular breaks to find relief from the weight of the knowledge of so much evil.
A year later, I was in Romania working with an organization whose goal is to build social capital—values like trust and responsibility—in a place where 50% of the population believes that the only way to get ahead is by stealing and law-breaking. The legacy of mistrust and corruption that the dictator Ceausescu’s communism left behind has become a major obstacle in the country’s attempt to thrive economically and socially. The coal-mining valley where I lived was one of the bleakest areas of the country, with unemployment at 60% and rising as the mines slowly closed.
As I look through my journals from those years, it is striking to see how frequently (and extensively, not being much of a diarist myself!) I wrote about hope. An excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams began one entry: “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” For me, the struggle to live with proximate justice has come most frequently in the form of these questions: What can we hope for? Is something really better than nothing? Does the exhausting and painful work of doing justice and loving mercy, matter enough to make it worth keeping on? In my experience, yearning for what ought to be while knowing and giving oneself to what can be, are not necessarily complementary states of mind.
A Romanian woman who was volunteering her time to mentor adolescents in our program said once, “It’s a hard thing, to change the world. And I think here it will take probably twenty thousand years!” Meeting people like her—people who chose to do good despite the systemic disincentives to do so—has made a profound effect on my conception of why and how good work matters. It seems that for many who deliberately live in especially broken places, the choice is not between a life of comfort and a life of struggle, but between hope and despair. The question of whether or not it’s worth the trouble is almost irrelevant because to answer negatively would mean choosing despair.
I do believe that some healing is possible, but I must ask for faith to believe that my work is not in vain. The seeming impermanence of it can be discouraging and frustrating, and I wonder how any of its goodness (if it was good) is preserved.
It is so easy to become disgusted with a country, a community, a political or economic system, a person. A few years ago I managed an employment and English-language education program for newly-arrived refugees. So much of their histories and the ways in which they are treated as immigrants in my country make one’s stomach turn. Across the board though, they were excited to be in the United States, and I was using the resources (however few) of my government and its citizens to help them create a better life. I often remember what Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote, referring to North American culture: “One cannot hate that which one would transform.”
I am entering the field of health care now as a grad student in nursing. It is an area where, at the individual and community levels, I can accept that some movement in the direction of health is better than no movement. I am also hoping to be an agent of transformation in my nation’s discussion and reformulation of its health care system. Now there’s an area where cynicism and discouragement are the norm! Knowing that we will not have a thoroughly just system in my lifetime, my choice is to be temporarily content with proximate justice and goodness, because choosing to despair would kill my soul. I am able to make that choice because of knowing others who do the same in more difficult situations, and because my faith and academic communities are full of people who believe that some good is possible.
I need metaphors to help me know and understand the significance of my life’s labours. In Gracias, about a year spent on vocational discernment in a difficult setting, Henri Nouwen offers this:
I remember seeing a film on the human misery and devastation brought by the bomb on Hiroshima. Among all the scenes of terror and despair, emerged one image of a man quietly writing a word in calligraphy. All his attention was directed to writing that one word. That image made this gruesome film a hopeful film. Isn’t that what God is doing? Writing his Word in the midst of our dark world?