Right now I am contemplating the word ‘adventure’. A couple of dictionary meanings I am drawn to are:
“an exciting or very unusual experience.” “a wild and exciting undertaking (not necessarily lawful)”
The second definition is leading me into a particular train of thought…. how do we evaluate what is ‘lawful’, what is
‘conformable to or allowed by law ‘?
Post Modernism tells us everything is relative and thus a matter of personal opinion, when one boils the philosophy down to its essence. As I am not a post modernist and believe in a code of behaviour which is bed-rocked on a definite and unchanging set of precepts, it is important for me to work out in my own life what is ‘lawful’.
Most people would agree that to abide by the laws of one’s land is good and right – and lawful.
Most people would agree that human trafficking and pedophilia are not good, not right- and not lawful.
And so the question fermenting in my mind is – what is my personal response to a situation, where the laws of a particular country at best turn a ‘blind eye on’, and at worst, allow and even condone, such horrors as human trafficking and pedophilia to thrive?
Is there a ‘higher law’ that my conscience and my actions will be accountable to?
Is it right or wrong for people to rescue young children out of prostitution when these children have been ‘legitimately’ sold and bought. Are these people, by doing so, defrauding, even stealing from the individuals who ‘bought’ the children and exploit them in a country where it is ‘the done thing’?
And what about countries whose governments are in power without the consent of the ruling majority?
Governments who terrorise, torture, imprison and take away the basic liberties of freedom such as access to food and water, health care and education?
Is it lawful or unlawful for someone like me to desire to help, speak out for, the citizens who suffer unimaginably under such merciless rulers?
Is it unlawful for me to speak on behalf of and attempt to help refugees who have crossed international borders and are surviving ‘illegally’ in a country that doesn’t want them, and in fact, hunts them like criminals.
And even more confronting is the question – is it lawful for ME to cross international borders to help the oppressed and the suffering, perhaps even illegally, in order to live out a higher law which demands my allegiance?
On my second trip to Malaysia, alone, I found myself sitting next to a businessman who, for the greater part of the flight from Hong Kong, watched various bits of entertainment on the little screen in front of him, whilst I sat and contemplated what the next week was going to bring.
However in the last hour of our journey, he suddenly removed his earphones, turned to me, and said something like, “So is this your first trip to Malaysia?’
This rather cliched opening led into a discussion that I will never forget and which I want to share the gist of now.
When this man proceeded to ask me why I was visiting Malaysia, I automatically thought, ‘ I can tell him I’m visiting friends – which is true, but certainly not the whole story. ‘ And then I realised that I WANTED to tell him, I wanted him to know.
“I’m visiting refugees from Burma and taking them some stuff that they need”.
If you ever want a conversation stopper, then that’s a great line to throw at someone.
He literally stared at me. “But that’s illegal. You can’t do that. They’re illegal immigrants and the Malaysian govt. has just now stepped up its campaign to get rid of all these people who are coming in. The police and civilian vigilante groups are ruthless – and don’t think you’ll be protected if you’re found with these refugees because you are a white woman. You’ll be arrested. Don’t do it!”
I must confess I actually enjoy interactions like this – not because I am necessarily argumentative, but because it gives me the wonderful opportunity to tell people about not only refugees generally, but those in Malaysia in particular.
As we talked, his little TV screen now folded away and his full attention directed to this crazy female whom he had the misfortune to be sat next to, I explained who these refugees were and why they found themselves in Burma. I described the 100 or so men and young boys whom I had met on my first trip, who were living in the jungle in makeshift huts, hunting for food, isolated, living in fear of being found by the authorities.
The businessman listened.
I told him about the young widows and elderly grandmothers whose husbands had died in Burma, and who were surviving in rundown tenement apartments, unable to work, with no access to school for their children and no means of medical care when needed.
And then I described how these gentle, humble people were hunted by vigilante groups who were paid a ‘bounty’ for each refugee they caught. I told him about women who were sexually harassed because they had no ‘legal’ status; about men who were beaten in the jails; about men and women and children who were caught and sent into detention camps, or worse, deported to the Thai border.
I mentioned that these refugees could not return to Burma, although that was their hearts’ desire. I told this man that a slow genocide had been happening in Burma for nearly 60 years.
When this businessman asked me what I was taking these refugees I said, ‘clothes, medicine donated by a Hong Kong doctor, and money given by friends’.
As the plane made its descent in to Kuala Lumpur we fell silent. There was a quiet satisfaction in me that I had ‘spoken out’ to a total stranger about an issue I’m passionate about. It didn’t matter to me what he thought of me, and at least he had listened – intently.
As the plane secured itself to the offloading terminal and people began jumping out of their seats and opening overhead lockers, this businessman turned to me and held out his hand. Looking me directly in the eyes he said quietly, “Thank you for sharing all this with me, I had no idea…”
And then – “You’re doing the right thing and I wish you every success.”
Funnily, it had not been my intention at all to ‘convince’ him that what I was doing was ok. My aim had been to inform, to enlighten a man who made frequent trips to this country – and knew it well. EXCEPT for what was going on with the ‘illegal immigrants’.
What is ‘Lawful?’ I recall a certain group of very religious people asked a certain Jewish carpenter that question more than once.
Is it lawful to do good? To help another human being who because of circumstances is help – less!
We all answer that question in one way or another – and if we agree that,yes, it IS lawful to do good then perhaps we need to examine our own response.
You see, passively agreeing and doing nothing is as good as saying ‘No’.
“I’m happy to leave America and go and die with my friends in Africa,”
These words were a small part of another huge conversation I had recently with friends from the States. They have visited Hong Kong several times since our family came here over 3 years ago – and always their visit is fused into a larger landscape of service and volunteering in a number of countries in this part of the world – orphanages in Thailand, outreach in slum communities in the Philippines – and of course long, hard days here at Crossroads helping in whatever way is needed on any given day.
Last year Daryl and Mary took a team of young people to Africa for several months to serve the poor. They have been doing this sort of thing for many years now. And they truly, genuinely, absolutely love it!
Both are in the prime of their lives, both work, both meet all the basic financial obligations of living in a place like the USA. So how do they mange to spend around 4 to 5 months every year ‘taking time out’ to serve others on no pay?
“It’s simple’, Daryl said, as he relaxed in our lounge one night, after a day’s physical labour on site. ” Mary and I work a certain number of months every year to facilitate our taking the remaining months to do our service trips. We work to pay our bills, and save enough to cover the time when we will be away on no income.”
Jim and I listened…..
Daryl continued, ” Mary and I decided many years ago to set a basic level of income need, and anything above that goes into what we really live for – serving wherever we are called. We have simplified our lives to base essentials – and we are free to serve.’
“How many strings do you have?”, Daryl asked us. As we mulled on this rather profound question, he continued. “We all have strings attaching us to stuff – the more strings we can cut, the freer we’ll be to hear the call and respond.”
It seems everywhere Jim and I turn we are hearing, reading, witnessing in living real colour, this deepest of truths – stuff, in all its various ramifications, ties us up, chains us to responsibilities and commitments that we realise somewhere deep inside us, will never bring us peace and fulfillment – BUT we can’t seem to cut the strings.
And by stuff, Daryl didnt just mean houses and cars and the latest upgrades in phones and plasma televisions. Our society and our media’s sole goal, it seems, is to keep convincing us 24/7 that we need more of everything – more toys, more insurance, more of more. And so the ‘stuff’ in our head becomes fixations like – ‘I need to get as much money for me as I can – not just for all my present wants – but for all the future ones as well – I need to plan right up to the day I die, and make sure that when I do, I’ll not only be very comfortable, but have stored in savings accounts and retirement funds the accumulation of my life’s labours. ‘
And so the time to serve, to take the proverbial leap from the boat, never comes. It NEVER comes! Because the paradigm we construct our decisions on becomes the all consuming and all enslaving – ‘this and this and this box needs to be ticked BEFORE I start thinking about someone else.’
We all have those boxes, but after spending time with Mary and Daryl, I have had confirmed to me again that the boxes are actually strings…..or chains. And you know what, society as it presently is, will make sure you will never get to tick them all – there will always be something more you need to get, to do, to earn, to ‘sort out’.
“In the States,” Daryl reflected,” people are saving money all their lives so they can afford to move into a ‘good’ retirement home. That’s become ‘The Goal’ for many people we know personally.”
Jim and I kept listening….
I thought about some people we know back in Australia – who even in retirement, with more than adequate funds and a ‘lifestyle’ which 90% of the world can only fantasize about, are still ticking boxes. Still existing inside a worldview that literally cannot conceive a life outside of maximum personal comfort and financial ‘padding’.
“I don’t need to die in America, in a retirement home which has literally cost me my life to qualify to get into.” Daryl looked at Mary, and she was smiling her characteristic beautiful smile which, if one could capture ‘peace’ into a momentary visual icon- this smile was it!
“When the time comes, we don’t need all that to die. We have friends all over the world, who are our family, to whom we can go – places where we have invested our energies and our love. Mary and I are happy to die in an African village or a Philippine slum – in the end it doesn’t matter where we die, but how we’ve lived, and how we’ve been obedient to what we are called to do.”
Truth is always beautiful – but it’s hard as well. Simplifying our lives, even when we decided to come to Hong Kong, was the MOST complicated and time consuming process I had ever experienced!
But it has been worth every ounce of stress and difficulty. AND – the simplifying hasn’t finished, AND I am getting the feeling more and more that for us it has only really started.
In my head I now have a little list of all the things I won’t need when I depart this mortal coil.
I won’t need all my stuff. I won’t need to be worried about what our house is currently worth or whether interest rates will go up again. I won’t be too bothered about what sort of car Jim is driving at the time or whether I really should have lashed out and bought the ‘ fresh on the market’ new I Touch. And I probably won’t be tossing and turning wondering whether Great Aunt Roberta is going to leave me her cache of jewels.
And you know what I won’t need the most? The opinions of people, well meaning or no, who thought we should have done this, or not done that. Man’s approval will take a very distant second to what the Carpenter will say.
“Anywhere he goes I follow, anything he want me to do, I did”.
These were the words of 20 year old Sunny, a former child soldier in Liberia’s bloody 15 year civil war, as he described his unconditional loyalty to his ‘general’ as a 10 year old boy, in a conflict that has left Liberia the second poorest country in the world today.
With 80% unemployment and basic necessities such as clean water and electricity unavailable to the majority, children continue to suffer the after effects of the war, with the orphaned and abandoned surviving on the streets, and many of the over 11,000 ex child soldiers involved in criminal activity and drug abuse.
In Liberia one will see children breaking rocks in order to earn a few dollars. Here you will witness children with ‘short sleeves’ and ‘long sleeves’ – depending on where the machete fell on their small bodies.
As I reflect on the above, my mind and heart are again attempting to reconcile the two paradigms I am confronted with daily, even hourly. In Australia, many young people I know measure their ‘have’ and ‘have not’ status by the brand of sport shoes they wear or the I Pod they have fastened to their ears. This is the culture they breathe, they are integrally a part of it, it’s ‘normal’. And how can I, or any one else, even begin to judge these youth for simply inhaling this most potent of oxygens – get more, have more, display more! Our media exists to make sure this is the message they hear – constantly.
In most of the rest of the world, as I have been painfully made aware of over these recent years, the ‘have’ and the ‘have nots’ measure their place in society by vastly different criteria.
In Cambodia and Laos if you have enough rice to eat every day you are well off. If, perchance, you can add a little fish or meat to your rice, then you are wealthy.
In Tajikistan if you are a child who is able bodied and well, you are one of the fortunate. Statistically a rising number of children are being born with horrific birth abnormalities because close relatives, first cousins for example, are marrying each other because of cultural tradition.
In Zambia if you are a child who can actually get to school, even by walking up to ten kilometers to get there and back, you are extraordinarily blessed. And if you own a backpack to put your school books in, you are rich.
As I learn about places like Liberia and Sierra Leone and DR Congo, my personal ‘status calculator’ suffers another necessary displacement.
In these countries if you are actually alive and whole, in body and mind, you are in the ‘have’ category.
Numberless millions, adults and children, live with memories we wouldn’t choose to conjure up in our worst nightmares. In civil wars, under brutal regimes, they have lost not just material possessions, not just their homes and livelihoods – but their identities.
Young boys conscripted to be child soldiers, young girls forced to be child brides – or prostitutes, women trafficked across borders and never seen or heard of again, elderly grandparents struggling to care for grandchildren whose parents have died of HIV AIDS.
‘Short sleeves’ or ‘long sleeves’?
I didn’t know what that expression meant until a few years ago. It is a fashion statement of a very different kind. And it clearly draws the line between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in countries like Liberia.
I am asking myself right now what I, as a mother, would be feeling if soldiers came into my town, into my home, and asked my son or daughter that question as they raised the machete over their arm.
I am asking myself what I would feel as I watched the machete fall.
We are all so good at taking in statistics and we are very good at compartmentalizing. We may not articulate it, but somewhere in our soul we say ‘ yeah, that’s Africa, that’s India, that’s how it is’.
Many people I’ve met have chosen not to live inside the ‘that’s how it is’ worldview. They speak out, they give, they GO.
They choose to become THE difference for someone else.
Are you a ‘have’ or a ‘have not’?
Check out the length of your sleeve!