Progress Nonetheless

The G-8 is meeting on the island city of Toyako in Japan. The world’s industrial nations meet periodically (in no particular order: France, Russia, Italy, the U.K., the U.S., Japan, Canada and Germany) to discuss world problems, common interests, bridge building, how to address new issues, even how to agree to disagree. These meetings are frequent enough, so much so that the journalists that cover them can end up being jaded. This time not much was hoped for in the way of breakthrough. Although were there to be, it does not mean it would be carried out. Not long ago, for example, the G-8 agreed on funds for Africa, much of which still have to be allocated or given. Still these meetings are important, for they underline and solidify a world order which is obviously vital to a modicum of peace.
This time two things struck me as particularly important. The first is the pre-meeting exchange of ideas and agenda setting. For whatever reason the Japanese Prime Minister was reluctant, some even said he lacked the courage, to put 3 main crises on the agenda, the food crisis, the economic crisis and the energy crisis. All three converge and threaten a large portion of the world’s population. So last April Gordon Brown, the U.K. Prime Minister, wrote his Japanese counterpart. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, also recognized the need and together they called for an inter-ministerial group to address the issues and present them to all the member countries. That report is a 6 page letter which is now guiding the G-8 discussion and makes it clear that the issues of food, energy, price explosions, consequences and the like must be addressed.
The second thing that impressed me was how much things have changed. World diplomacy is relatively new, centuries ago, and even generations ago, its equivalent was the king of X country marrying the daughter of the king of Y country. We can therefore criticize the lack of decisive action that is sure to come out of this meeting, or even the lack of concrete results, but we must praise the process, the very existence of these get-togethers and see them as part of some evolving way to conduct world diplomacy. We must recognize they signify progress nonetheless.

Erring On The Side Of Caring

Ten-year old Michael Campo, has a problem which many others could soon share if the way we are enforcing immigration laws continues. His father, Carlos Alvarado, here illegally was arrested for drunk driving and referred to Immigration by the County Jail. He has now been ordered deported to his native Mexico. Alvarado pays $276 a month child support and though the court order says he is to see his son every other week end, he sees him every week. A lower Immigration court had allowed Alvarado to stay in the U.S. and continue working at the same plastering job he’s had since he’s been in the U.S., but a higher court disagreed and referred the case back to the lower one.
In Mexico, Alvarado who has joint custody with Michael’s mother, would be deprived of his custody rights, and since it is doubtful he would be able to send child support (he would no doubt earn less and has other children) would be in violation of that court order. Immigration officials contend that this is no different than when a parent moves to another state, and refuse to grant or entertain the idea of hardship. Michael’s mother, herself an illegal immigrant from Brazil fears sending her child to Mexico, so it is doubtful he would be able to continue seeing his father on a regular basis. Michael is a U.S. citizen and while he has rights these may not apply or make a difference.
The issues of the case involve two different legal systems, that of the State which oversees family law and that of the Federal government which oversees Immigration laws, two systems which in this, as in the many such similar cases in the future, come in conflict. Seen in terms of its underlying values, rather than in terms of conflicting legal systems, the issues seem much simpler. In our eagerness to enforce immigration laws and be tough on illegals and other non-citizens, are we loosing track of what is right for families? Are we allowing what may well be our prejudices about illegal immigration to supersede the rights of this young American citizen and do what would be best for him and for his family including a father who is employed but who made a mistake? If we believe in family values, then oughtn’t we to make them count when the chips are down, when the situation is difficult and the choices not clear cut?
Let’s hope judges and others deciding guidelines for such cases allow themselves to be informed by the values hidden in this case and err on the side of caring.

Touching Evil

Douglas A. Blackmon is making the rounds with his book Slavery by Any Other Name and if one takes the time to hear him, one will undoubtedly have much to ponder. What stirred me after I heard him talk was not so much the suffering of African Americans in post Civil War United States because I’ve read many books about that subject–though I must admit it is not the kind of suffering one can easily dismiss– what gnawed at me as it has so many times before was how could someone inflict such harm, willfully, deliberately, repeatedly? How can one flaunt the absence of decency, morals, ethics, principles? How can one use, exploit, beat, imprison, mistreat, flog, deceive, torture another and do it, not in whatever small measure the people around us may sometimes do, but on such a large scale. How could one own another? I read this morning about sugar cane workers in Brazil who work up to 12 hours a day in the back breaking cutting down of sugar canes 6 or 7 days a week. I could not do that to another human being. The people I am close to could not either. And yet, history is filled with people who committed atrocities, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust to mention but two. And what of people who sexually molest young children?
Are we all capable of malevolence? Studies say most of us are. What is it in us that makes us so blind to others, to their suffering, to the consequences of inflicting pain? New research shows that during WW II ordinary Germans helped the Nazis and engaged in committing horrors.
We tend to focus on the results of perpetrators’ actions and on the suffering they cause perhaps at the expense of not sufficiently focusing on those who are responsible, the perpetrators themselves. We can be very judgmental about those who commit ordinary crimes, pass laws that are punitive and unforgiving. Yet so much of these horrors are not committed by criminals but by people much like you and me. Could we not learn to recognize them, to figure out what it is about them that lies behind their odious acts? Such closeness would be unsavory, like really touching evil. But I wonder if touching evil isn’t in order not only to better understand what makes human so depraved, but also help us to stem the smallness impulse from within us, and make it that much harder to engage in the worst of human behavior?

The Pain of Others

As soon as I heard the words, “I’m Jackie’s son” I knew something was wrong. Steven called to tell me his mother, my friend of over 30 years, had died. I knew she had a bad heart. A couple of years ago the doctor had told her she’d have two to five more years. Still I didn’t expect it, and since I so loved and respected my friend Jackie, as Steven spoke, I cried. I wish I could have stopped the tears but I couldn’t. I wish I could have said the right words to comfort Steven, but I was too busy dealing with my grief.
A little while later I called my old and very dear friend Susan to get news of her husband’s back surgery. The spine had been nicked, she said, and they were waiting to see whether the oozing spinal fluid would seal itself or require additional surgery. The news took me aback. It was to have been a simple enough procedure. I ought to have comforted her, I should have known the words, but my own pain was too much in the foreground.
Feeling pain for the difficulties of others is supposed to make us compassionate. And usually it does, but there are times when our own pain puts the focus on us, not them. Then we are whether we want to call it that or not, at least a bit selfish. Had I not been so preoccupied with my own feelings, had they not acted as a barrier between me and true compassion, finding the right words, comforting Steven and Susan would have readily come to mind.
I know better and more often than not practice it. While I can find excuses for myself, even reasons, this time I didn’t. For now, the regret of indulging my personal feelings over those who were in pain remains. Hopefully it will guide me to better recognize the signs so that next time I can put such feelings aside and focus on whoever needs my compassion.