Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 December: Reflecting on US

Here is our Christmas photo for 2010: the first picture of the Sonnleitner family in several years. Historic! Left to right are Shaman, Sonrisa, Mira, Kristine, Me (Michael), and Margarita (our former foster daughter, now integral to our family).

Last year at this time Shaman, Sonrisa, Kristine, and I were in India on my Fulbright Grant, preparing to celebrate the New Year in Pala (in Kerala) having just spent Christmas in Chennai (formerly Madras). The flood of these memories includes waves relating to: my first Fulbright lecture at the Madras University where an aggressive member of the audience questioned the relevance of Gandhi; visiting locations where Jesus` apostle Thomas lived and died; shopping amidst the hustle and bustle of the city`s traffic while being confronted with the poverty of many people on the street; and enjoying the simplicity of the only Christmas tree we could find – a 3 inch tall wax candle.

The contrast with this year was stark. Our Christmas tree as a 6 ft. Grand Fir costing $20 (a bargain in the US, but a weeks` wages for a laborer in Kerala). As usual Kristine did most of the shopping while I was over busy completing my Fall Term teaching responsibilities for over 100 students whose final course evaluations had to be done. The pressure of a consumer culture which really values spending over giving and appearances over inner substance hit us harder than usual, partly because our finances are tight. Just as well. Perhaps having to be frugal due to a low bank account may help our family learn to live with less stuff. The challenge to reduce our hypocrisy is greatest when the temptation to conform is most strong. Less money means less temptation, translates to living a little more in line with the spiritual values we often profess. Would Jesus or Gandhi, Buddha or Mohammad be found frantically in a shopping mall searching for last minute presents unneeded by those who would receive them?

Five months after returning to the US from our travels abroad, I have still not returned to a shopping mall. This has less to do with virtue than with the fact that I have trouble enough living a lifestyle modest by cultural standards here. It is good to sleep at night. If my behavior is too inconsistent with my values, sleep is lost. Vegetarianism is the same for me. In my case, eating meat is not an option as sleep would be lost! If sleep is lost, I get really crabby. When crabby no one wants to be around me, including me! There are consequences to all choices we make. I like consequences which bring sound sleep, build relationships, and may fill more stomachs as well as bring laughter more into the world.

When the young Indian questioned the relevance of Gandhi a year ago, my response to him was simply to ask whether or not the Law of Karma remains relevant. It seems clear to me that we (as individuals and as a collective US) can reflect upon how it is that what is sown is reaped. Sooner or later what goes around does come around, yes? Though we may often reap what others have done in the past or how they may be behaving in the present – and so very harmful things can happen to people who might deserve better treatment – we have little control over what others do or do not do.

As Gandhi would say, we have about as much freedom as a person traveling the seas on a crowded ocean liner. Still, we can make choices for ourselves: Shall we live in a first class compartment, on the deck under the stars,or somewhere in between? Gandhi chose the deck and this allowed him to relate better to those for whom the deck was not a choice but the only place they could afford. If we really care about the one billion people living in this world on less than a dollar a day, perhaps we should more sincerely relate to them and be more generous with whatever surplus of our resources that may be shared. While global warming is, no doubt, among the greatest physical challenges facing humankind today, reflection would indicate to me that if we were to better warm our hearts to the needs of others the challenges to be faced would be collectively and effectively addressed.

Students in my classrooms at Portland Community College (PCC) last Fall were in greater pain than has been normal in years past. Many more are needing food stamps to avoid hunger, couches in friendly rooms to avoid homelessness, and flexibility in course deadlines to avoid course failure. Their pain brings more to me as I am aware of how very little I can often do to be helpful. Sometimes we as individuals (and as institutions) feel overwhelmed by this awareness and are tempted to make rigid rules (really protective walls) to protect ourselves from having to be responsible. To do nothing rather than a little, however, is not a moral option.

To give a lot is much better, even if a lot for me seems only a little for you. Jesus described this as the widow`s mite – to give more (time, money, other resources) than it would seem we can afford. When asked what to suggest to commemorate next years` 50th Anniversary of PCC, I responded by proposing a 5 year freeze on any tuition increases! Though neither our Union nor the Administration would seem warm to such an idea, a collective belt-tightening might well help us better relate to those we serve – and warm many hearts in the process….

Besides having all of our children together with Kristine and I for Christmas, my most fond memories of this December include things like getting a friendly email from a former student of mine at St. Thomas College, enjoying a box of chocolate covered cherries (reminding me of my father who left from this world nearly 6 years ago), and Merry Christmas greetings from four moslem friends (two in India, one in Eqypt, and one in Palestine) who were unknown to me at this time last year. One friend (Mazin Qumsiyeh in Palestine) was detained by Israeli military officials after he questioned the authority of soldiers who were in the process of expanding an illegal Jewish settlement in a town near Bethlehem. Through an electronic outcry (via phone and email) from many people (including myself), Mazin`s good karma had him released after only ten hours. This just goes to show that true wealth is found in relationships, not in material possessions which may be lost to governments that abuse their power, or thieves who may break in and steal.

Another small bit of good news may serve to bring you a smile. The Internal Revenue Service has (through some means not understood by me) decided to reduce our family income tax liability from nearly $3,000 (which they were preparing to seize) down to about $60. As military tax resisters who do not wish to finance the U.S Empire or the weapons used to enforce its interests, my wife and I will still refuse to pay the $60. Unexpected expenses this last Fall, however, would have our ability to pay basic bills difficult if the IRS had seized $3,000. See? Sometimes help in challenging times comes from unexpected places: even the IRS!

As surely as 2011 begins tomorrow, my classes at PCC will begin next week. Fond memories are strongly in mind as I reflect upon the many wonderful people from St. Thomas College and Mahatma Gandhi University (in India where I was teaching at this time last year), and others who brought joy to the life of those with whom we shared in 2010. Where are you all now, I wonder? How many of us will still be in this world at this time next year? Let us communicate with one another as best we can for life here can be nasty, brutish, and short (as Thomas Hobbes once wrote). As we hear from one another, and work with one another to carry on, joy can come from the realization that we really are but one big human family.

The future is in our hands, one small life at a time, one day at a time.

In any case, whether we like it or not, the adventure continues!

Happy New Year!

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