Better than Gold

“People cling to the most barren crags of earth for the idea of home,” a classmate once told us. She’d grown up in Midland Texas before college in Houston, and then taught English to NATO students in Prague, Turkey, and Italy, so I figured her classrooms full of recruits oft endorsed such nostalgia. “You don’t even have to have been born in a place to get homesick for it,” she added: evoking wave-dashed isles in the North Sea, parched Middle Eastern wadis, the frostbitten steppes of eastern Europe, and ubiquitous hardpan clays as images scrolling past the mind’s eye. “That’s where were from,” someone told us long ago, so you lifted an elbow once or twice over here, in allegiance. Desperation might evoke thoughts of returning to a home like that, but home’s not always the best option if it’s not safe. In that case we imagine running to anywhere but here please, if here’s worse than prison. Opportunity plus oppression brought most of us to where we are, even the natives.

In 2005, Steven Spielberg directed a miniseries called Into the West, re-telling the story of two families during US westward expansion: one white (wheelwrights from VA), the other native american (Lakotan people). In Episode 1, scene 4 the youngest (Jacob Wheeler), grows discontent with family treatment and his perceived endgame, so he signs onto an expedition to the Pacific with Jedediah Smith, an enigmatic “mountain man”. They trek passed St. Louis only to get hemmed in by an early blizzard in the Sierra Nevadas. A band of friendly Mohave’s invites them to weather the storm in their camp, and as so happens, hospitality turns to revelry. Jedediah’s quietly reading and writing from a vigilant lookout nearby, contemplating the sun lighting on the horizon, when a lone soul breaks loose to join him:

“There’s a part of me that wants to be back down there with them,” Jacob confesses, “what does that make me?”

“It makes you a human being, Jake, just like the rest of us, but we’re more than that too. ‘As you thinketh, so you are’. What do you think you are, though? — The Lord fashioned us a little above the beast, a little below the angels, and gave us a choice, and it’s great too. Some that come west lose their souls. West is a place on a map not a way to live. Don’t forget that. Each has to know their own mind — you might begin your own journal.”

When Jacob braved that foothill climb, he was filing away at his shackles. We all wear ‘em don’t we? Some are self-imposed, others are institutional, there’s the geo-political type, many are negative voices, a great multitude of which are external, not a few are internal, and those are some of the most debilitating kinds. Examples are:

  • golden credit card shackles
  • minimum payments
  • work-life, it’s time or it’s money
  • we can’t take a vacation like that this year
  • 12 more years till we’re free and clear
  • that job’s just too far
  • yes, they’re failing too because of me
  • it has to be on the bus route
  • we’re doubled over by burdens
  • they compound indefinitely it seems
  • to rough out a 1st-world draft

Left to fester, the pit of despair becomes the birthplace of daydreams – hopefully – but it doesn’t always work out so well. We had a great Associate Pastor recently who told us about hitting his own institutional roadblocks when he finally traded his postdocs for a higher call, thank goodeness. One of their enlightening research studies went like this:

The Rat Race

Two aquariums were filled with water, each with a perimeter platform around a central pool. Rats were dropped into both tanks and allowed to swim close to the point of exhaustion, when a buzzer sounded and the slightest electric charge was applied to the water. At that point, a ramp (race) was placed into Tank A only. Shimmying along the walls in parallel, rats in A found the ramp and rescued themselves by climbing out to freedom. Rats in B had to continue treading water until their wits gave out. Eventually rats in B didn’t even swim for the edge.

When conditioned this way after many repeat trials, operators switched it up. The ramp was lowered into Tank B instead of A and the first tank became perpetually rampless. At the sound of the buzzer now,

  • Rats in A continued circling the walls indefinitely in search of the race, while
  • Rats in B stopped swimming immediately and dropped to the bottom (even though there was an escape route now)

People do weird things when it seems there’s no hope,” he said, people that is.

“People aren’t really lined up to leave their current situation unless it gets excruciatingly unbearable,” he continued. Rev. Lavender was actually preaching about the Israelites’ 400-year situation in Egypt as slaves when he told that story. Imagine what it would take to motivate you to trade home and familiarity for status as a homeless refugee with an uncertain future. People usually eke it out as long as possible to stay close to roots and family. If we’re honest though, there’s another curious whisper encouraging us all the while. We can’t ever be quite sure where it leads in advance, but following it sure looks like an impossibly victorious achievement in hindsight, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, you’ll recognize it step-by-step. It’s irresistible.

As a side note, the company I’m currently ‘temping’ with recently partnered with a finance group called Kiva, that sponsors low-interest life-improvement micro-loans to people and families internationally, to help them in place. Our company donated $1MUS for broad-based distribution voted on by employees. It just took a few clicks to direct my $25 allotment to a $1000 multi-family latrine project in Cambodia. There’s good payback too: 97.2% of loans are fulfilled so you can “fund a loan, get repaid, and fund another.” In my own words, crisis progression listings there seem to resemble this:

  • Basic survival: in the poorest villages, families advertise need for supplies to build toilets, water wells, roofs, and homes.
  • Life, health, and wealth: when basic needs are met, families might request money for rice or grain, not for eating but to start a family farm or because of a drought. This is revenue positive since they’ll be able to sell the harvest and repay the loan faster.
  • Craftspeople: other established families might request start-up or expansion funds for textiles or construction materials to sew clothes, rugs, make baskets, or turn pottery. These products can return exponential profit depending on craftsmanship. Recipients become job creators then, who can contract others or pool monies for public works like: latrines, wells and clean water, cisterns and dams, clinics, schools, community centers, internet cafes, windmills, solar panels, drip irrigation, greenhouses and aquaponics, other agricultural improvements, arts and beautification, and beyond.

When I learned about Kiva, I immediately thought of our childhood friend who founded NOVICA after college, only to discover Kiva and NOVICA had already been partners for quite a few years. Bravo! NOVICA’s a matchmaker in fair-trade jewelry, fashion, and home décor, who showcase the work of 2,000 world-class artisans from across the globe to internet buyers through their on-line showroom. “We’ll actually go into very remote areas and look for artists,” their CEO shared during an NPR interview last winter, “and when we discover an artisan who has great products, we know their lives are about to change.” There are of course, many other outlets for helping people in addition to these examples. The point is, every good action whittles away at someone’s shackles.

When community health, safety, nutrition, cohesion, and positive cashflow improve at the ground level, it’s always a success. The same can be said for enriching life on projects closer to home.

“you’re set free” – Luke 13:12

Acoustic: Home
Artist: Phillip Phillips, World from the Side of the Moon (2012)

“I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.” – Frederick Buechner



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