Giving Up for Lent, or Teaching Poverty in America

Broken Heart by Leach84 at Flickr

Broken Glass Heart

What would it (our life, this essay, our world) look like if we began by accepting failure?

What would it mean to engage a conversation in true humility? What blindness would we remove if we could willingly see the many mistakes of our life and our society? Who would we notice if we took our eyes, even for a moment, off of the powerful, the pretty, the prestigious? What choices would we make if we first understood that failure was not only an option but a necessity?

And, presuming that entertaining the fact of failure would not pitch us into a fatalistic abyss, how might this initial acceptance of our ultimate powerlessness lead us into an awareness of the power of human potential? And then, if it is still too painful to see it as it is in reality, what if only in conversation, or in theory, we imagined that accepting failure was the first step in alleviating poverty?

What if accepting our failures was the only way into a life of love?  What freedom would we find there?

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Two days ago was Ash Wednesday. Christians around the world marked their foreheads with an ashen sign of the cross as they were told to “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” If ever there were a day to accept failure it was Ash Wednesday. Are they crazy? Is this insane? Maybe. But I wonder, as a Christian, whether this is actually the most empowering starting point.

Accept that you will ultimately fail (in death if not before) and your priorities shift, your humility rises, your every action takes on a little more significance; your very life rises out of the dust of nothingness. It’s as if there is a moment in which you accept your essential poverty.  And suddenly there is nothing to lose. And all of life becomes gift.

Accepting the gift of our life reveals a powerful truth: the antidote to poverty is not wealth. The antidote to poverty is generosity. Accepting my fundamental neediness encourages in me a posture of gratitude. And it’s gratitude that impels me to ask how I might respond generously to the Giver.  It’s this: gratitude empowers generosity.

Generosity begins with our attention. Reading. Listening. Considering. Being attentive and literate. Being sensitive and considerate.

Generosity continues with our responsibility, that is, our ability to respond. Answering. Suggesting. Asking. Clarifying.

Generosity finds its fulfillment in devotion. Being committed and faithful. Being dialectical. By devotion I mean the persistent practice of active participation in a life of labor and service, self-gift and love.

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Why are we talking about “poverty” in America? It’s not something we want; it’s not a goal of ours. Why not talk about, as some do, “Wealth and Happiness in America”? Because it seems to me that our lives are, in some fundamental sense, an exercise in accepting failure. To look honestly and accurately at the circumstances of our society we have to (in part – certainly not in all) accept that things are not as they can be, not as they should be.  And we have to accept that this fact is due, in part (in part – certainly not in all), to our moments of failure as a society and as individuals.

I have failed and I will fail again. Accepting this fact opens me to receive the wisdom of limitation and collaboration; accepting this helps me to take advantage of familial and social networks of mutual dependence; accepting failure helps me to passionately seek out opportunities for mutual conversion and education. When I begin by accepting failure… I strangely find myself taking my next deep breath full of hope.

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And I remember… that while two days past was Ash Wednesday… yesterday was Valentine’s Day… which reminds me that we were not made for failure… we were made for love.

After all, you have to make love to make us and it is only in love that our failure finds redemption. What if this were true? It would follow that it is only in poverty – in standing with, listening to, learning from the poor and all who suffer – that we will find the fullness of life.