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 Global Perspective

February 26, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 46

global perspective
Mary Jo Leddy is a member of the Romero House community in Toronto and the author of Radical Gratitude.



I suggest that the intrinsic link between the dynamics of the economy, the psyche and the spirit may go some way to explaining the curious situation in which many who live richly and well off, even those who live in the richest and most powerful nation on earth, feel generally powerless and vaguely guilty.

Captivity and Liberation in North America

A reflection for the first week of Lent

By Mary Jo Leddy

  We cry out to You because
       living is so all consuming
       we are wasting away
       from wanting it all.
We are too busy
to take the one step.
We are running in circles
       running on the spot
       getting ahead
       while falling behind
       going nowhere fast.
Thus we are held captive
to everything and nothing.

Let us take the one step
the one sure step
in the direction of freedom.
One step is enough.
Let us go. Let us leave
Mardok, Mammmon,
the disposable gods.
Be with us Manna,
Daily Bread and ordinary delight.
Give us water on the way,
You, the Diviner. You, the Destination.

Lent 2004 in America is a time of endings and beginnings. These are days of liberation ... if we can name our own particular form of cultural captivity. We are enchained by a perpetual dissatisfaction that is integral to our economic system, that expands to the extent that it can continue to expand the needs and wants of consumers. This artificially induced craving becomes a habit of being, a perpetual dissatisfaction.

Lent 2004
Consumerism relies on creating within us the sense that we must always have more, that we never have enough. Most readers of National Catholic Reporter are probably at least a little wary of this message and have made some conscious lifestyle choices toward greater simplicity.

However, this perpetual dissatisfaction holds us captive on far deeper levels. Slowly but surely, the message that we don't have enough transmutes and transforms us at other levels of our being:

  • "I don't have enough"
  • becomes "I am not enough"
  • becomes "I am not good enough"
  • To say, "I am not enough" is to acknowledge a generalized sense of powerlessness. It is all those feelings that gnaw away at hopes we have treasured: I can't change the church. I can't change the world. The American dream is shattered. I can't change anyone else or myself for that matter. That's the way things are.

    To say, "I am not good enough" is to admit to a vague feeling of guilt. It is that feeling that claws at us (and this is particularly true of people on the left) from the inside out: Who am I to say? I've never suffered that way. I should have done more. I could have done more. It must be my fault. It must be America's fault. It must be the church's fault.

    In other words, the economically induced dissatisfaction in the culture of money not only drives us to shop, it also produces a profound dissatisfaction with one's very self, one's very soul, the core of one's being.

    It generates within us profound feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy or guilt. Let me suggest that the intrinsic link between the dynamics of the economy, the psyche and the spirit may go some way to explaining the curious situation in which many who live richly and well off, even those who live in the richest and most powerful nation on earth, feel generally powerless and vaguely guilty. It may help shed light on some of the rather perplexing self-hatred and self-deprecation of a good number of people in North America. It may help us reflect on why so many feel there is "not enough" to go around and so are driven to a politics of scarcity in a nation of great material wealth.

    The connection between the so-called "outer" world of economics and the "inner" life of the self may also offer some insight into why so many people who are relatively well off (in comparison to the vast majority of people in the world) still feel generally unhappy.

    It is precisely the vagueness of the generalized feelings that flow from this all-encompassing sense of dissatisfaction that makes them so debilitating. Real feelings of powerlessness are based on realistic assessments of things in our lives or in the world, things that we cannot change. Through such an assessment we are usually left with a renewed sense of what we can change.

    Similarly, real guilt, as opposed to vague guilt, can become the source of renewed energy -- both spiritual and psychological. Real guilt locates us as human beings who have the capacity (and power) to do good or ill. The person who feels really guilty is also in the process of realizing that his or her actions have consequences, that life is not inconsequential.

    However, one can feel overwhelmed by feelings of vague guilt: "I am not good enough." We can feel that we are responsible for all that is wrong with the world or with the church -- and quite unsure whether we can do anything about it, just as we are quite unsure about what exactly we have done to make things go wrong.

    This lack of conviction about the significance of one's actions can manifest itself in at least two ways. On the one hand, a person may feel paralyzed, unable to do or to say anything. On the other, a person may engage in a frenzy of activity and be perpetually busy. Such busyness usually results from an inability to say no to anything because we are not convinced that it matters whether we say yes to something. If we aren't convinced that the choices we make matter, then we might as well do everything that comes along. Paralysis and hyperactivity are both symptoms of a sense of insignificance and powerlessness.

    Lent is a time for assuming real guilt and real power. And it is about liberating gratitude.

    It is the ingratitude that blinds us.
    Our failure to see what we have
           on the way to getting more
    Our disregard for what we step over
           on the way to somewhere else
    Our lack of attention to the person by our side
           on the way to someone else
    Our dismissal of the good that we do
           on the way to something greater.

    All that we take for granted
           falls through our hands
           and disappears from sight.
    And we too fall away
           from ourselves and from You.
    We walk by ourselves
           by the wayside
           and do not recognize You
           on the way to something better.

    Editor's Note: Come back to Global Perspective next week for more of Leddy's reflections for Lent. Some of the reflections are developed further in Leddy's book Radical Gratitude(Orbis, 2002).

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