A Circle with No Outsider

A Circle with No Outsider

This is the third post of the Understanding Poverty series.

 

Imagine entering a room, a banquet hall. You approach a small group of people to greet, but they scurry away instead. People start to turn their backs on you. Your hesitant smiles meet derisive stares.

 

The message is clear: You are an outsider. You don’t belong. You’re not wanted here.

 

How would you feel? Shame. Small. Something rotten. What is wrong with me?

 

Am I not good enough? Not cool enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not educated enough, not rich enough, not talkative enough, not tall enough, not healthy enough. Or, too cool, too educated, too rich, too talkative, too tall, too fit, too womanly, too manly, too light, or too dark.

 

Now imagine that in the midst of that uncomfortable room, someone comes in and scans the crowd. She makes eye contact with you and her face beams with joy.

 

What relief.

 

Your savior has come. She heads straight to you. You’re drowning, but she’s lifting you up. Someone is actually happy that you’re here. Someone is here who says, You belong.

 

 

Outsiders and Their Saviors

 

I daresay most of us have experienced being an outsider, some more severely than others. We know that strong sense of shame, of being rejected for who you are.

 

How much do we long for that someone who embraces us as we are? Or, how much relief envelops us when that person comes.

 

Outsiders and their saviors is a lens through which I’ve been reading biblical stories lately, Jesus’ stories, in particular. Jesus was not only the Savior of the world—in the take-away-the-sin-of-the-world sense—He was constantly a savior in social situations.

 

Imagine Zaccheus’ wonder, an outsider, cast out by his tribe for working with the enemy and swindling his own people, when Jesus turned his eyes on him. When was the last time someone saw him for who he was? Jesus not only saw him, He let Zaccheus feed and minister to Him. In this meeting, Zaccheus was affirmed and challenged to transform.

 

Imagine being a leper whom Jesus touched, who had probably forgotten what it meant to be seen or have human contact. Jesus’ healing was not only physical—it was emotional. You are accepted. I accept you.

 

Imagine being the woman who touched Jesus’ garment. Or being a child who wanted to come near Jesus. They were outsiders, but they found an ally in Jesus.

 

In fact, more than an ally. They found someone who would eat with them, someone who would touch them and talk to them, someone who would be with them. They found the kinship of God.

 

Expanding Our Circle

 

As a Christian who aspires, however insufficiently, to be in the world as Jesus was, Jesus’ example is challenging. To go where no one else wants to go, to be with people most people avoid, is… well, I don’t want to do it.

 

We like to congregate among likes and we exclude. We like relationships that will give us something. Sometimes we even find our sense of belonging by excluding people.

 

To a kind of social life that only consists of people who affirm us, Jesus’ love toward those shunned by society is simply provoking. While as humans we may concede to some inside-outside relationship, God’s inside circle is expansive beyond our conception. There is no one whom God does not want to rescue.

 

Perhaps it would do us good to remind ourselves of our outsider-ness. Go back to imagining that banquet hall, to being rejected, and to being rescued.

 

Gregory Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion writes about the gang members he works with,

 

Homies have been “outside” for so long they forget there is an inside… The toxicity gets so internalized that it obliterates the “me.” You couldn’t possibly have interest in knowing things about “me.”

 

All throughout Scripture and history, the principal suffering of the poor is not that they can’t pay their rent on time or that they are three dollars short of a package of Pampers. As Jesus scholar Marcus Borg points out, the principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame—a global sense of failure of the whole self.

 

Exclusion by money is as old as time. What never gets old is this: Jesus was born and lived as a poor person. The first public words Jesus spoke was, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs are the kingdom of God.”

 

Boyle continues,

 

Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to Him. You strive to live the black spiritual that says, “God looks beyond our fault and sees our need.”

 

To that diminished sense of self, God says, I am happy to be with you.

 

To Be Known and Loved

 

Boyle tells a story of Mother Teresa when she once told a group of lepers how loved by God they were and a “gift to the rest of us.” An old leper raised his hand and said, “Could you repeat that again? It did me good. So, would you mind…just saying it again?”

 

To be accepted for who we are, fully, isn’t that our greatest need?

 

Tim Keller writes,

 

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.

 

God goes beyond than tolerating the outcasts—He delights in them. Now if we could be a force of that kind of love in the world…

 

See related essay: Human Strudel

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

 

Kinship: A Better Model for Altruism

Kinship: A Better Model for Altruism

This is the second post of the Understanding Poverty series.

 

“I do what I do because I’m broken too.”

 

Coming from Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, civil-rights activist, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a MacArthur Fellow, renowned speaker and social justice leader, those words, I must confess, are perplexing.

 

Is it sympathy? Empathy? Some poetic pathos? It sounds so very virtuous, yet I don’t really understand what he means.

 

In this New Yorker profile, Stevenson tells the story of Jimmy Dill, his client whose execution he tried, unsuccessfully, to overturn. Just before Dill was executed in 2009, he spoke to Stevenson.

 

“I’ve been in that setting before, but there was something different about this, because the man had this speech impediment,” Stevenson said. “He couldn’t get the words out, and he was going to use the last few minutes of his life—his last struggle was going to be devoted to saying to me, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you for what you’re trying to do.’ I think that’s what got to me in a way that few things had. And I, for the first time in my career, just thought, Is there an emotional cost, is there some toll connected to being proximate to all this suffering? I think that’s when I realized that my motivation to help condemned people—it’s not like I’m some whole person trying to help the broken people that I see along the road. I think I am broken by the injustice that I see.”

 

Shared Brokenness

 

As he stands with the condemned, marginalized, and “broken,” Stevenson becomes broken too. His humanity is altered as a result of his proximity to those who suffer.

 

In my reading, I’ve come across this sentiment multiple times. In Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service, Mary Poplin writes about Mother Teresa’s journal entry in December 1948, where she says,

 

What poverty. What actual suffering. I gave something that will help her to sleep—but the woman longs to have some care… confession and holy Communion.—I felt my own poverty there too—for I had nothing to give that poor woman.

 

In standing with the poor, Mother Teresa came to a realization of her own poverty too.

 

The Missionaries of Charity, in fact, commit themselves to four vows, namely poverty, chastity, obedience, and free service to the poorest of the poor. They want to be one with those they serve, for how could they understand the poor if they are not living as they live.

 

What Stevenson, Mother Teresa, and the Missionaries of Charity have, to me, is more than just a feeling bad about the poor. It’s way beyond sentimentalism. It’s even deeper than feeling bad enough to do something about the poor. It’s more like entering into the experience of the poor and the marginalized, and being one with them.

 

Kinship, Our Mutuality

 

I found the expression of this shared brokenness most eloquently articulated by Gregory Boyle, in his books Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, where he shares stories and lessons from his work with Homeboy Industries, a rehab and re-entry program for gang members in Los Angeles.

 

In Tattoos on the Heart, he quotes Elaine Roulette:

 

Sr. Elaine Roulette, the founder of My Mother’s House in New York, was asked, “How do you work with the poor?” She answered, “You don’t. You share your life with the poor.” It’s as basic as crying together. It is about “casting your lot” before it ever becomes about “changing their lot.”

 

Kinship is more than doing things for others. It’s more than the “power dynamics” between the service provider and the service recipient. It’s about mutuality—a changing of both parties as a result of being proximate with each other.

 

Often we strike the high moral distance that separates “us” from “them,” and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us. Serving others is good. It’s a start. But it’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom.

 

Kinship—not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.

 

I think Stevenson finds kinship with his clients. I think Mother Teresa finds kinship with Calcutta’s poor. I think Boyle finds kinship with the “homies.”

 

In this kinship, what they feel is not wholeness or some self-fulfillment from doing something altruistic. Rather, a mutual brokenness, but also awe and dignity in those who are demonized by society.

 

In the Christian context, I can’t help but think of Jesus. Could it be that He experiences kinship with us?

 

Jesus’ strategy is a simple one: He eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, “I will eat with you.” He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he “gets his grub on.” Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable.

 

What would it be like to feel the kinship of God?

 

To be continued…

Photo by Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Feature image: Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Johnny Loi Photography.

 

The Watchman. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Temple of Sinawava. These are not religious allusions, but names of the rock formations in Zion National Park, Utah. Soaring to majestic heights, it is not surprising that they inspired spiritual experiences in those who named them.

 

From the ground to thousands feet above sea level, these rocks’ vertical dimension tells a mysterious story of time and nature. Carved to each groove is the invisible movement of waters over this Earth’s lifetime. History collapsed into formations. Rocks stand as though holding secrets, as natural monuments, as silent witnesses to the forces of nature that humans will never uncover.

 

Face to face with this hushed grandness, one cannot help but sense the drama hidden in the place. There are things bigger than me and I am overwhelmed.

 

I found myself in this tension at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks recently. I found that I could see these mysteries in two ways.

 

One was the questioning way. What happened here? How did the rocks get shaped this way? What was it about this area that made this structure possible? Is there consensus whether it was something catastrophic or gradual? Could geologists distinguish the footprints of a catastrophe vs. gradual canyon creation by water year by year?

 

The monkey mind could go on and on.

 

But then I found that there was another way of looking at the scene. Asking what happened was futile, since no one knew what exactly happened, how precisely the waters flowed to create the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. No one was there. With that, I silenced my monkey brain.

 

Then it happened. Silence, awe, wonder, reverence.

 

It was a way of looking at things for what they were, just as they were, acknowledging the mystery and admiring it in peace.

 

I was reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words on the two ways of seeing the world in his beautiful book, Man Is Not Alone:

Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties-with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.

 

In one, the world is subject to us. In the other, we are subject to the world. One is scrutiny; the other is surrender, a succumbing to something other than us.

 

Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.

 

Wonder is not just about receiving information; it is the amazement at being able to see at all:

Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.

 

Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts.

 

And here is the crux of the two modes of seeing:

When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.

 

 

Couple this with Before Learning and After Learning, applying the two modes of seeing the world in the process of learning. Also read Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once on the experience of encountering nature.

 

The One Trait Inspiring People Have in Common

The One Trait Inspiring People Have in Common

Inspiration. Moments when life gets elevated to a kind of dreaminess. The belief that there’s something more, something better than what the eyes see.

 

I think about my last decade, about the books I’ve read, about the people I’ve known about, and I notice a pattern. From time to time there are individuals who inspire me not just intellectually, but also emotionally. I may encounter their voices in a book, an interview, or a speech, but a single trait impresses me over and over again. It is this: the ability to treat work as a calling [1].

 

What Inspiring People Have in Common

 

Muses—that’s what they are, spanning across time and interests. From Paul Kalanithi’s poetic reflection on the moral imperative to be excellent in neurosurgery, a work that treads delicate boundaries between the body and the soul, the brain and the person’s identity, Atul Gawande’s pursuit to better medical practitioners as stewards of other human beings, Oliver Sacks’ deep awareness of the humanity in each of his neurology patient, war photographers and conflict journalists’ death-defying commitment to tell the truth, David Axelrod’s hopefulness on politics as a powerful medium to impact the lives of many people, in spite of the corruptions that he has witnessed, Seth Godin’s anthem on true and genuine content as the essence of marketing, that trust is the currency transacted between you and your audience, a sacred thing not to be abused, Hope Jahren’s love for plants and for a science that can’t be measured by its money-making power, but still important to study, Bryan Stevenson’s dedication to advocate for the most helpless in the criminal justice system, to artists and craftsmen toiling to perfect their creation. Each of these individuals treats their work, almost ceremonially, as something sacred. They handle their lifework with reverence, embracing its true value, and applying themselves to it with excellence, rigor, and most of all, love.

 

They treat work with a deep sense of personal responsibility. It’s not a job that someone else imposed on them, something they would push to someone else if they could. They work with conviction, a commitment to do the right thing even if it’s hard, no matter what the consequences. There’s stubbornness in their hope and optimism, which in its self-fulfilling way propagates to the rest of us. They don’t only exist in book world. Occasionally I meet them in real life too, everyday heroes who see the true essence of their work, the essence of its good, and do them with excellence.

 

I resonate with this Way of living in the core of my being. I consider these individuals having reached a certain fullness of being alive. These are not perfect people, as their strengths may be interwoven with weaknesses in other areas. They may even be tortured souls in one way or another. But because they have lived, we become better.

 

Living a calling requires an idealism that must be tested by hardships. The inevitable struggle, an incarnation of the classic idealist vs. realist debate, will manifest itself. How to work with purity in the face of life’s commercial need? What about money? How do we pay the bills?

 

Some of us don’t have the luxury to be idealists, some may say, and yes, fair points. But let’s face it. The idealists are the ones who ennoble humanity here on earth. Their approaches, infusing meaning to the mundane, lift our existence up and refresh us with honor and nobility. They remind us that there’s something better, some way better.

 

Searching for True Value

 

In my own life, I seek for this deep meaning in engineering, in reading, and in writing. What does it mean to do good engineering, not just doing it well? What does it mean to read well, to not just be entertained, but to be taught and to share experiences with the author? What does it mean to write well, to honor the trust that you, readers, have given me by spending your time on this site? How can I produce something valuable, something that would make people better, somehow, as a result of reading the blog?

 

I consider these worthy questions, never too idealistic to pursue. In fact, without this pursuit, my own idealism and optimism would have died. Like those muses, I want to live a worthy life, do worthy things, and present a little gift to the world during my existence on this planet.

 

The Power of Choices

 

Often times, there are disappointed or wistful voices lamenting the fact that society is not as noble as it used to be. There’s this nostalgia of a time and place where humans were collectively better, when everyone valued work as a calling.

 

I’m actually not sure if such times existed. I don’t think that there was ever an ideal time to be an idealist, for each age and society has always had their optimists, their in-betweens, and their pessimists, with tensions between each group. This nostalgia may be hindsight bias, a cleaned-up version of history, because idealism makes good stories. Stories get told and re-told for generations, and somehow, we convince ourselves that only these good things happened, or that past has a monopoly on good stories.

 

The truth is, honor and nobility of purpose have always had its oppositions and naysayers. Idealists will always have lovers and haters. There’s nothing essentially different about human nature now, vis-à-vis idealism, than in the past. Idealism and hopefulness have always been inspiring. They have always incited a spectrum of reactions, among which are dismissal and contempt.

 

But if any age and society could produce heroic idealists, this would mean that there’s nothing preventing me from being one today. In fact, all those who have inspired me recently are my contemporaries in the 21st century.

 

What’s left between me and having a worthy life is a choice. Sure, there will be resistance, challengers, and naysayers. Circumstances may make it difficult; bills still need to be paid. But ultimately, these external factors cannot override the simple fact that I decide to strive for a noble life. It’s my decision. And it can be yours too.

 

You can choose to live honorably today. You can choose to treat your work with excellence today.

 


[1] This is a twin concept of finding your calling. Similar, but not identical, since I believe one can know one’s calling in life intellectually and still treat the work with no reverence.

Monday Inspiration: Brené Brown, Derek Sivers, Sheryl Sandberg, and More

Monday Inspiration: Brené Brown, Derek Sivers, Sheryl Sandberg, and More

Happy Monday! Or not so happy Monday. I don’t know about you, but I usually need pick-me-ups on Mondays, something inspiring to boost up the week and get me excited about the possibilities that this week can bring. If you’re feeling kind of “meh” today, here are my Monday inspirations! Links and quotes that will inspire you throughout the week. Bookmark them, or consume them in one sitting, up to you. These are the stuffs that have inspired me recently. Enjoy!

Brené Brown

This is an interview with Brené Brown with Chase Jarvis on his 30 Days of Genius series. Incredible conversation on emotional intelligence.

 

Derek Sivers

On Success Habits and Billionaires with Perfect Abs. An episode from The Tim Ferriss Show where Derek answers questions from fans. The last 3 minutes of this are glorious!

 

 

Sheryl Sandberg

A courageous commencement speech at UC Berkeley by Sheryl Sandberg where she talks about facing griefs after her husband’s death last year and learning gratitude. It’s a tear-jerker.

 

 

Inspiring Quotes

“Finding your calling will not happen without the aid and assistance of others. Every story of success is, in fact, a story of community.”Jeff Goins from The Art of Work

“Stand in your God-given personality. Be no other person’s shadow.”  – Ellen White in Mind, Character, and Personality Vol. 1

“You’re more powerful than you think you are. Act accordingly.”  – Seth Godin

Now have a courageous and inspired week!

Photo credit: Unsplash.com