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Sunday May 7/2006
8:16 AM, just before the plane’s descent

Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.
—Marion Wright Edelman

 

ACTIVATING SOMETHING

After the second screening of Uganda Rising at Hot Docs in Toronto last night, a woman in the audience commented on how good the documentary was (and documentaries are) but how they leave her depressed and confused and helpless and small as to what she could possibly do.

I know that feeling. It brought to mind a few thoughts, which I offered in response, and a few more right now (the next morning on the plane flying home, maximizing my addiction to oil).

Firstly, I think the question at least partly arises from an inability we humans have to understand how everything—every breath with a lover, every glance at a stranger, every moment with family—can make a difference when it is given with love.

The possible triteness of this comment is not lost on me, and yet it I stand by it with all the love that I have. Mother Teresa phrases this differently: “There is nothing small when it is given to God. The moment we give it to God, it becomes infinite.” So let’s just say, for this essay, God and love are interchangeable.

Either way, it is only my own inabilities to believe in the possibility of love—or at least in the love that I am willing to risk giving—that makes it trite.

As for the smallness she mentioned (against, for example, this vast cosmos), I recently read a human being is physically comprised of some ten trillion cells, and within each cell two metres of DNA. Clearly humans are not small, we’re just tightly wound.

Back to the audience member’s question about doing more in this confusing world: I think association is vital in becoming socially active.

Find people you like (or even don’t like that much) who are in some way social activists against injustice. Be around them. Watch them. Chip in. Join Amnesty International. Join Foster Parents. Rent documentaries. Walk instead of driving. Educate yourself. Read about others who devote themselves to stopping injustice. Put away your television set—or at least stop watching nine-tenths of what passes for news.

Consume with the earth and her beings in mind—fair trade, free trade, not human trade. Avoid products made with slave labour in sweatshops under hellish conditions. Reach out to strangers.

If you’re religious (or not) work with churches that are more closely linked to a theology of devotion to people in need rather than proselytizing.

If you want to immediately make a statement against suffering, don’t eat animals tortured in slaughterhouses and animal factories (note to self: stop eating dairy or eat only organic dairy). (i)

There’s a great line in the film from Samantha Power: “I get my hope and inspiration from the people who haven't been helped and yet somehow—I don’t know how—haven't given up on the rest of us…” Call your mom and say thanks, and then work outwards while going inwards...

NOBODY KNOWS

This world is not solvable by strategy. How could it be, if we don’t know the terms of the deal. Who even knows what human means—what is self? Where are we from? Why are we here?

The human dilemma is human nature.

A 15th century Indian sage named Chaitanya said: “Be more tolerant than a tree, humbler than a blade of grass.” Jesus said, “No longer love thy neighbour, love thy enemy.” I guess that’s trite too, until you try to do it, or be it.

I was on the plane to Toronto with my friend Tim, a wonderful fearless soul who shot a lot of the footage for Uganda Rising. He has an unrelenting bond of love with Africa—and even though he’s a Christian (or as he says, a follower of Jesus), I still suggest such a strong affinity to Africa could be past-life.

Anyway, Tim sort of listens to me as if I have inside me a certain wisdom that might be useful (or he could just be humouring me). He often asks: “Are you sure you’re not a Christian?”

On the plane Tim shows me a photo of himself surrounded by five smiling Ugandan children. It turns out he and his wife sponsor all of them through Food for the Hungry and World Vision.

He is not a rich man. Nor is he a poor man. He’s like me, except with a second child on the way—which makes him at the same time a lot not like me.

I was sort of stunned. Five sponsored children. I say, wow, that’s impressive. Tim mentions there are five others as well—and he says it with no self-righteousness. He just beams at the thought of them all, and names the five in the photo. Alex. Richard. Barbara. Sharon. Rose.

It must hurt a little in his pocket book. But I guess that’s the point. I’ve read more than once that a sacrifice is only a sacrifice if doing it causes some discomfort. I wonder to myself if I have the will, generosity, courage or belief to share more of my good fortune.

Sitting there, I realize that good association can clearly also be a big pain-in-the-conscience—for me, in this case. Just what am I willing to do, beyond speak a few words that sound insightful?

Not being able to change everything—which is a dumb thought anyway—should not exclude me for one moment from doing more of something.

Ah, I’ve just realized I actually write to inspire me, and after that, can only imagine or hope something I write might serve others.

Another comment that came to mind in the talkback was something Noam Chomsky said. I am paraphrasing, but he says people from the West are always asking him what they can do, while everybody in the rest of the world is already doing it. (ii)

I suppose we can research and find out what those whom we would like to serve, are actually doing. We can probably assume, however, it has something to do with a desire for justice, freedom and dignity—or even food and water.

Yogis also have a great line that might be instructive. They say, “When a person wants to change the world, that is ego. When a person wants to change inside, that is spiritual practice.” This is echoed in Ghandi’s, “Be the love you wish to see in the world.”

A wonderful teacher of mine, Jeffrey Armstrong, has a line that I’ve seen written on one of his notebooks—and when I saw it, I was drawn towards it, particularly so because it came from a spiritual teacher, where in the East liberation is so often the goal: “Service is more important than liberation.”

STEP BY STEP

While Jesse and I were putting together the footage of Uganda Rising, I would walk the forty-five minutes from my house to his house in the morning. Sixteen hours later, after merely working with—not living with—these sometimes ghastly (sometimes beautiful) images and interviews, I would walk home again, at say 1 or 2 AM.

In one sense the walking was in solidarity with the Night Commuter children in Northern Uganda, who have for years been forced by fear to walk up to an hour and a half to shelters every night to sleep in relative safety from LRA attacks and abductions. They would then return the next morning to their village, hungry, and try to prepare for school.

The second reason I always walked was that it blessed me with an hour and a half of time to chant in my head (or out loud when the emotion overtook me—sometimes deeply). I could clear my head, think about the film, imagine other lives, things eternal, the children being safe, the nature of the material world, and so on.

But along the street-lit roads and long shadows, I would also come face to face with what I knew was a lack of feeling within me, of not only what I should do, but of what I feel, and don’t feel, inside myself. Why don’t injustices move me to action? Why don’t I do more—not just about Uganda—but in every way? Why don’t I love more, give more?

The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that either a big enough emotion in the heart will push a person to act in service for others, or committing oneself to act in service for other people will begin to create bigger emotions in the heart that will in turn expand service, and keep that devotion going.

In other words, if I don’t feel enough emotion, by serving anyway, the emotion will come. And to serve with the intention of love and devotion—which is why we speak of it in the film—some would say is the deepest truth to spiritual evolution.

And whether one believes in the spirituality of it or not, service with love is love. We can do it in every moment. And in every moment we choose to not give love, we become more separate from all brothers and sisters. I thought of a bumper sticker that will never make sense in traffic, but might at the end of this paragraph: Hug A Stranger: Say No To Genocide.

So here we are, a world circling around a giant ball of fire, circling around something even bigger.

We aren’t little, we’re just tightly wound.

I wonder what’ll happen next.

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(i) Veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, which is already pumped up with steroids, distended utters, forced pregnancy and cruel confinementwhich makes milk a little more difficult to swallow.

Check out www.farmsanctuary.org, (there’s a beautiful film done about this by Tribe of Heart films called Peaceable Kingdomand another called Witness) or see www.factoryfarming.com. Any thoughts about this, let me know.

(ii) Chomsky from a 2003 interview with David Barsamian on Znet. Chomsky: “….when you go to Turkey or Colombia or Brazil or somewhere else, they don't ask you, "What should I do?" They tell you what they're doing. It's only in highly privileged cultures that people ask, "What should I do?" We have every option open to us. None of the problems that are faced by intellectuals in Turkey or campesinos in Brazil or anything like that. We can do anything. But what people here are trained to believe is, we have to have something we can do that will be easy, that will work very fast, and then we can go back to our ordinary lives. And it doesn't work that way. You want to do something, you're going to have to be dedicated, committed, at it day after day. You know exactly what it is: it's educational programs, it's organizing, it's activism. That's the way things change. You want something that's going to be a magic key that will enable you to go back to watching television tomorrow? It's not there.”

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack