Inferno of the Living
BY ARCHENE TURNER, COMMUNITY MINISTER, WASHINGTON D.C., FORMER YOUTH MINISTER, CEDAR LANE UU CHURCH, BETHESDA, MARYLAND
A friend suggested that I read Invisible Cities, a short novel by Italo Calvino that consists of dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, because she found the stories meaningful. I certainly found Polo’s thoughts about inferno provocative:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
I think we are living in an inferno. People acknowledge we are living in an economic crisis, but family, we are in a moral crisis, too.
A 2009 survey found that one in four families had been hit by a job loss during the past year, and nearly half had suffered a reduction in wages or hours worked. For the working poor, already struggling, the current recession is knocking them down another notch—from low wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all.
Barbara Ehrenreich went back and interviewed some of the people in her 2001 best seller, Nickeled and Dimed, a book about the working poor (the quarter of the population that struggle even in the best of times). She called her article “Too Poor to Make the News,” because the media is looking for what has been called “reces-sion porn” —stories about the incremental descent of the well off from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. A typical story from Ehrenrich’s article reads:
Sarah and Tyrone Mangold… She was selling health insurance, and he was working on a heating and air conditioning crew. She got laid off in the spring, and he a few months later. Now, they had one unemployment check and a blended family of three children.
They ate at his mother’s house twice a week. They pawned jewelry. She scoured the food pantry. He scrounged for side jobs. Their frustration peaked one night over a can of pinto beans. Each blamed the other when that was all they had to eat. “People get irritable when they’re hungry,” Ms. Mangold said.
Mr. Mangold no longer objects to using food stamps. “I always thought people on public assistance were lazy,” he said, “but it helps me know I can feed my kids.”
Stories like this often include phrases like “Those we serve are now our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet.”
I wanted to SCREAM. Were not the people they served before also our neighbors, our former colleagues and hard working individuals struggling to make ends meet? And this: “We’re hearing from more and more middle class people who have never in their lives gone to a food pantry...they are very, very frustrated and angry.”
Who goes to food pantries for kicks?
I thought about the hundreds of people I had seen at some of ALIVE’s programs, through which volunteers from over 40 congregations help those in need in the area of Arlington, Virginia. On Halloween Day, members of the UU Church of Arlington took the time to show me ALIVE’s child development center, food distribution and shelter, as others prepared for monsters, ghouls & goblins.
The people I saw in the food distribution center did not appear angry. They were unusually quiet and respectful. Many of them looked like members of my own family tree—white, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander, African, Arab and Latino/a descent. Perhaps the frustration and anger had passed out of them. Maybe there is a difference in people’s minds between climbing up a ladder or going down one. But to me a rung on a ladder is a rung.
I thought of Calvino’s Marco Polo, and his two ways to escape suffering the inferno. The first is to accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.
Many people do not know about or see the people ALIVE serves in Northern Virginia. We think that need, struggle, and hunger are in some distant land. In Africa, New Orleans, the District of Columbia—but oh no, not here, not in our own neighborhoods or religious communities.
We can live our lives so we no longer see what is happening in our world. We pretend that things are not happening all around us and we become a part of the inferno.
When most people imagine an inferno, they think of Dante ’s The Divine Comedy. However, I was raised on another story about hell, a parable told by Jesus, in which a rich man goes to hell and a poor man to heaven. The rich man is surprised to see the poor man in heaven by the side of Abraham. In his suffering, the rich man pleads to Abraham to send the poor man to give him water to quench his thirst. Abraham says that the chasm is too wide to be crossed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and other preachers have interpreted this story to mean that the rich man went to hell not because he was rich, but rather because he allowed the poor man to become invisible to him. He passed this poor man every day and failed to help. The rich man was blind to the need of others. Even in hell, he still believed he was better than the poor man and could expect that the poor man should serve him. The callous rich man wanted the people in heaven to care and help him, but he had failed to do this in his own life on earth for others.
Perhaps, like the rich man in the story, our souls are destined to hell because we are blind to the needs of others.
We might be that way because we ourselves are barely holding on. In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David Shipler writes that “in the house of the poor the walls are thin and fragile and troubles seep into one another.” Perhaps those troubles seep into our own lives, too, because we are just as fragile.
That is why I say we are living in an inferno, even hell some days. Each of us walks that tightrope of hanging on to make sense of our own world. Something in us says, “Just do for you and yours.”
I want to tell you to resist this urge. The act of doing the exact opposite—reaching out to help others—is the balm that heals us and is the very essence of who we are as religious people. It is what will lead us into a moral recovery.
Calvino’s Polo says that the other way to escape suffering in the inferno is to “Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
He does not say do things to make you endure and give you space—he says give to them. The act of caring for someone else provides salvation from the inferno. Do these acts with no expectation of a thank you, or need for acknowledgement from the other person or people, because these are things you are giving yourself, to pull you out of the inferno of the living. The only way to escape the inferno is together, building a land of liberty and justice for all.
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