Chilam Balam, or, Chicken Little: a Prophet Out of Season
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Then he sat down opposite the offering box, and watched the crowd putting coins into it. Many rich people were throwing in large amounts. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny. He called his disciples and said to them, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others. For they all gave out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had." Mark's Gospel
I wasn't yet aware that most of the world's population would rather go hungry than deny food to a stranger. Brian M. Schwartz, "A World of Villages"
The greatest danger before you is this: You live in an age when people would package and standardize your life for you --- steal it from you and sell it back to you at a very high price. Granny D (Doris Haddock)
The coming peril is the intellectual, educational, psychological and artistic overproduction, which, equally with economic overproduction, threatens the well-being of contemporary civilisation. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves. G. K. Chesterton Toronto, 1930
Beyond the point of satisfying need, redundant capacity becomes a burden and not a gain. Greed, the attempt to fill an empty spirit with possessions, is a great producer of depersonalization. Our preoccupation with labor saving, beyond the elimination of soul-destroying drudgery, is no less counterproductive. To have without doing corrodes the soul: it is precisely in investing life, love and labor that we constitute the world as personal... Generosity of the spirit personalizes as greed depersonalizes. Erazim Kohak
The destiny of man is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world ... we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty. Winston Churchill
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's "own" or "real" life: the truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life -- the life God is sending : what one calls one's "real life" is a phantom of one's own imagination. C. S. Lewis
The essential contribution Gandhi made to the 20th century thought was his insistence on the need for a lower standard of living... He maintained that the essence of civilization consists not in the multiplication of wants but in their deliberate and voluntary renunciation. He preached a higher standard of living and maintained that a lower level of material well-being was a necessary pre-requisite. Ronald Duncan
My greatest skill has been to want but little. Henry David Thoreau
Money is the thief of man. Hindu saying
There are two ways of lying, as there are two ways of deceiving customers. If the scale registers 15 ounces, you can say: "It's a pound." Your lie will remain relative to an invariable measure of the true. If customers check it, they can see that they are being robbed, and you know by how much you are robbing them: a truth remains as a judge between you. But if the demon induces you to tamper with the scale itself, it is the criterion of the true which is denatured, there is no longer any possible control. And little by little you will forget that you are cheating. Denis de Rougemont
During the decade now beginning, we must learn a new language, a language that speaks not of development and underdevelopment but of true and false ideas about man, and his needs and his potential. Ivan Illich
Growth has become addictive. Like heroin addiction, the habit distorts basic value judgments. Addicts of any kind are willing to pay increasing amounts for declining satisfactions. They are blind to deeper frustrations because they are absorbed in playing for always mounting stakes. Products that are new and improved promise the concept of being 'better', but leave the concept of 'whether or not good' for the individual or society completely un-addressed. Often new and better products create more wants, dependency, and dissatisfaction for most, and constantly renovate poverty for the poor. Ivan Illich
If conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society's members. Ivan Illich
They want production to be limited to 'useful things,' but they forget that the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people. Ivan Illich
In a consumer society, there are inevitably two kinds of slaves, the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. Ivan Illich
In 1868, New York Herald editor, James Gordon Bennett, remarked "Men no longer attempt to rule by the sword, but they find in money a weapon as sharp and more effective; and having lost none of the old lust for power, they seek to establish over their fellows the despotism of dollars."
The wealthy make of poverty a vice. Plato
It was wants that made man poor. E. F. Schumacher
What government has succeeded in doing is to make it almost illegal to be poor. Martin Sheen
It is the greatest of all advantages to enjoy no advantage at all. I found it invariably true, the poorer I am the richer I am. Henry David Thoreau
He who dies wealthy dies shamed. Andrew Carnegie
Poverty is not the problem.
Wealth is the problem.
Poverty is the solution. Satish Kumar
Not he who has little, but he who wishes for more is poor. Latin Proverb
Abundance breeds waste. Ivan Illich
More than you need is never enough. Alan Archibald
A full stomach doesn't believe in hunger. Italian Proverb
Give me neither poverty nor wealth. Provide me with the food I need. If I have too much, I shall deny thee and say "Who is Lord?" Proverbs 30:8-9
It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it... In addition to the goods that (the American) possesses...he imagines a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying if he does not hasten. Alexis de Tocqueville
Thomas Merton was once asked to write a chapter for a book entitled "Secrets of Success." He replied: "If it so happened that I had once written a best-seller, this was a pure accident, due to inattention and naivete, and I would take very good care never to do the same again. If I had a message for my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success."
In a 1906 letter to H.G. Wells, William James referred to "the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch goddess Success."
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Almost always, great men are bad men. Lord Acton, (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, First Baron Acton of Aldenham)
Money helps, though not so much as you think when you don't have it. Louis Erdrich, Chippewa poet
The poor wish to be rich, the rich wish to be happy, the single wish to be married, and the married wish to be dead." Ann Landers
The Law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. Anatole France
No man should praise poverty but he who is poor. St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Martin Buber's "Paths and Utopia" describes the central question of our time: Will the state be called upon for more and more control of an anomic, disconnected group of people? Or will people form relationships in cellular-like communities, that will eventually form a community of communities, as the basis for organizing the world? Jerry Brown
When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness. Joseph Campbell
If we would only give, just once, the same amount of reflection to what we want to get out of life that we give to the question of what to do with a two weeks' vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimless procession of our busy days. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, American essayist
Tell the truth but tell it slant -
The truth must dazzle gradually -
Or every man be blind. Emily Dickinson
Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. Gertrude Stein
There is nothing as powerful as truth - and often nothing so strange as truth. Daniel Webster
Things happen in life so fantastic that no imagination could have invented them. Isaac Bashevis Singer
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Shakespeare
In your patience, you will possess your soul. Y'eshua the Nazarene
Chilam Balam, or, Chicken Little: a Prophet Out of Season
I hadn't visited Mexico in 28 years. Landing in the Yucatán, I was surprised how little had changed.
El Mercado Municipal still clusters around colonial colonnades. Rotting vegetables and the smell of fresh, un-refrigerated fish nudge my nose to the early seventies.
A Burger King fronts La Plaza Mayor, the only trace of American fast food. Pushcart vendors and market stalls still dominate local cuisine. Puerco puchero, pollo pibil, salbutes and a cosa típica called gringas.
More ominous - and more subtle - is the Yucatan's shifting taste in music.
2500 years ago, Plato argued that revolutionary social and political change is heralded by change in musical form. Many young Yucatecans are extraordinarily fond of English-language rock. Even traditional Mexican music bears the unmistakable imprint of electronic instrumentation. Pounding rhythms confirm the "self-evident truth" of adolescent hormone surge. Modern music is in a hurry to reach climax, and the rest of the world is speeding up to keep pace.
It's the night before departure, and Janet suddenly decides to buy a hammock for friends in Vermont. It's been a long day and even longer since lunch. We head south to Parque San Sebastian fringed with open-air loncherías. I wonder if we'll have time to return to la plaza before street vendors call it a night.
Suddenly, through an open window, I glimpse a loom. A blue and white hammock is stretched over the lower third. Three children -- one on roller skates -- take an interest in me. I ask who lives here, and a girl named Marielle says, "Mi abuela."
"Por favor, ask your abuela to come to the window."
While waiting for gramma, I study the living room and its contents: loom, chair, sofa, bureau, shrine. The shrine contains a faded wedding photo of a Mayan couple in embroidered regalia, a meter-high statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe crowned with spiky halo, and a hand-colored portrait of "El niño de Atocha, el Peregrino" - staff and water gourd in hand.
La señora, dressed in floral huipil with lace undergarment, approaches the window gracefully. At least sixty years have passed since her wedding day, but she is -- though wizened -- at least as beautiful.
"Señora, do you have any hamacas you'd like to sell?"
"Ah joven... Fíjese que no."
Then, an unexpected reprieve.
"Momento... Si! Verdad que una mujer me encargó una, pero nunca pasó a recogerla. Pasen. Se la voy a traer."
We make ourselves at home, examining loom and shrine while la señora fetches the hammock, ordered but never retrieved.
Returning to la sala, she apologizes that it's made of cotton rather than nylon, the thread of choice with tourists. Having slept for months in a Telchac hammock, I know cotton is more comfortable if less durable. I'm pleased by this turn of events, even if the pink-and-white color scheme wouldn't be my first choice.
La señora takes several minutes unfolding the hammock. I see that it's made of three-ply. It is immense, made to accommodate man, wife, toddler and infant. Its heft approaches - or exceeds - a kilo and a half, making it an excellent value for the 300 pesos she asks, half its plaza mayor price.
I ask her about el Niño de Atocha and she hands me a prayer card tucked in the frame of her wedding photo. It's a lovely invocation, asking God to bestow enough for each child's need so that we might all live in dignity and peace. "It's a beautiful prayer," I say. She replies: "Por eso la guardo cerca del niño."
The United States is a nation of arrested development. Adolescence continues 'til 30 and beyond. Even in our middle years, we're enthralled by svelte bodies and washboard abs. We've created a world view that's bizillion miles wide and six inches deep. Squeeze that lever. Grab that gusto. Don't miss out! We yearn for the next hit, supplied by people whose chief interest is to extract money from our pocket. Meanwhile, the world conforms to the cultural acceleration we've engendered, and speed has become the frame-tale of slow-motion apocalypse --- a paradox to gladden Lao Tzu.
Still, when I lay off the throttle and look beyond the sexualized urgency of commodity culture, I see my reflection as a globalizing "hit-man," a smiley-faced agent of cultural destruction. The traditions that attract us to Latin America - warmth, devotion, earthiness, extended family, personalism, ritual - are being homogenized from existence. Soon, everywhere will be a strip mall outside Hackensack.
The official story says we're expanding the scope of Choice. But who in their heart does not sense that the availability of 500 cable stations is, in fact, a new tyranny? Turning on the tube is like opening email and finding 500 letters in your box. Who does not pine for real leisure, for the ability to move beyond the Gradgrind exigencies of production, consumption and acquisition -- beyond the cyber-serfdom of information grazing -- into the blessed domain of creation, recreation and awe-struck adoration?
We've created a celebrity-driven, pay-as-you-go culture that replaces home-cooking, local cuisine, back porch music and mealtime story-telling with "Shhh! I'm trying to watch this!"
What are we watching? Mercenary interests and airhead celebrity colonizing our psyches with greed, lust, envy, fear and the perpetual fabrication of new "needs." To what end? The purpose of this hyperactivity is to get us to buy something --- but mostly "to buy in." There's no fear of Big Brother here. His hand is in our pants, and we can't get enough frisson.
Yes, commodity culture does amplify choice. More fundamentally, however, the industrial over-production of impertinent, faddish and habituating goods creates a Circumstantial Dictatorship in which everything is first made possible, and then, obligatory. We feel compelled to choose everything to avoid remorse at having "missed out."
Once we've "bought in," our continuing obligation is to chase the receding horizon of "progress," to hunt down the next "must-have" velleity, to sustain the witless growth that is, ultimately, unsustainable.
Ecologist E. F. Schumacher noted that "the people of the West refused to make the distinction between gluttony and the good life." There is no peace in "more," only "enough."
We leave la Señora's living room and continue toward Parque San Sebastian. The heat of day dissolves in dusk. Most home-owners have opened doors and windows to the adjacent street.
Throughout Latin America, urban architecture encloses the garden-atrium at the center of the home, and bypasses "the front yard" to abut the sidewalk directly.
Every 40 feet provides another glimpse of domesticity. We pass a home in which a dozen people are circled in prayer. I ask Enrique if this is, perhaps, a home wake. He says, "No. It's true that people still bury their dead from the living room, but they also like to pray novenas." I marvel not only at family and friends gathering on nine consecutive nights to invoke deity, but at the candor with which they join their prayer to the life of the street.
We Americans consider ourselves a nation of believers but hover between embarrassment and combativeness when our religiosity is revealed. Always we esteem the primacy of privacy, even while it destroys community, even when the resulting isolation torments us. I'm reminded that life's center -- life's focal point -- is still present to these people, that they have not lost their bearings, that they stand in spontaneous relationship to "the still point of the turning world."
We're coming into San Sebastian now. An open door belches noise with the irrepressibility of projectile vomiting. It's a video arcade and I ponder the abyss between its pointless cacophony and the real life of these people. Each machine is manned by a teenage boy hyperactively manipulating levers and buttons, leaving an indelible impression of collective masturbation. Sublimated masturbation perhaps, but masturbation just the same. Solitary self-gratification aimed at The Big Score.
In the next block, two open windows reveal the phosphorescent glow of television. Inside, a dozen men stare at a screen I cannot see. They are speechless and as isolated as the boys in the nearby arcade. The attentiveness of their upturned eyes reminds me of El Greco mystics enraptured by beatific vision.
Since the second world war, television has replaced most communal activity. What's left of "community life" involves these disconnected aggregates of boob-tubers genuflecting at the altar of mercenary imagination.
In the late sixties, I studied Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Cali, Colombia. I befriended a young caleño named Hector Fabio Gomez Brand who observed that "people are so determined to see things that are not in front of them that soon they see things that are not in front of them."
Who are all these people jabbering at cell-phones, barely distinguishable from curb-side psychotics babbling word salad?
For better or worse, we are conditioned to see the world -- to accept the terms of every debate -- as presented by celebrity and talking head. Clever as they are, these pop icons have made peace with illusion, blithely confining themselves to procrustean beds, submitting to the amputation of reality mandated by modern Moloch.
Perhaps what's left is reality of a sort. Still, I'm haunted by Chesterton's observation that "to be merely modern is to confine oneself to an ultimate narrowness." We need the past, we need the hovering presence of ancestors, we need peasant contact with earth to keep us vital, to enable us to escape the jejune constriction of modernity. We contemplate oceans of possibility, and -- entranced by the view -- never realize the water is ankle-deep.
At wide intervals, migrant friends have confided that living in the United States is like living in a "jaula dorada," "a gilded cage." Henry Miller, the feisty author of "Sexus," "Nexus," and "Plexus" wrote a book entitled "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare." For a while, "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare" became a metaphor for "the cultural enclosure" that began after World War II.
Now, none of us can imagine life without air-conditioning. We cannot live without "air." We cannot survive outside the bubble. Now, we know better. Now, we are "prudent." Now, we shun the sun. We keep our windows shut. While visiting Wal-Mart and Food Lion, cars are left running to keep them cool. We live with "comfortable" air, but without fresh air.
As my wife commented after a year and a half in Nicaragua: "You know? Most Americans can't live anywhere else."
We no longer aspire after acceptance and long-suffering patience. Instead, we feel entitled to ceaseless pleasure, and settle for the consolation of control and gratification. I remember in 1977, when I left St. Leo's monastery, Benedictine Brother David had this final counsel: "Don't seek consolation."
It is, after all, the consolation prize --- the booby prize.
Which brings me to the most difficult part of this essay --- the paradoxical relationships between suffering and joy, acceptance and liberation, and the direct relationship between narrowly-targeted success and broad-spectrum failure.
After my companions left the Yucatan, I remained in Mérida to replace several "fillings," work I couldn't afford in the States. My friend, Pablo da Costa, recommended his dental surgeon, Carlos, and I arrived at the clinic --- door open to the street --- on the morning of July 17.
Carlos introduced to me to his technician (who doubled as receptionist) and settled me in a high-tech chair, proudly displaying his method for maintaining sterile field. For over two hours Carlos probed, cleaned, drilled and filled.
I'm reminded of my 1950s boyhood when Mom and Dad took all five kids to an aging dentist in downtown Rochester. Dr. Ruckle's ambiance and technology were completely pre-War. I didn't have novacaine until my mid-teens: my cavities were routinely filled without this amenity.
After Carlos cleaned my teeth, he recommended immediate replacement of two "rutted" fillings. I gave him the go-ahead, and without further inquiry, he began to drill, making no mention of anesthesia. Having been "down this road" as a boy -- and determined to save as much money as possible -- I said nothing and submitted to the process, eager to determine exactly how much benefit accrues from the use of painkiller.
Although painful, there was no instant of pain worse than the jolts received when tartar is scraped from the backside of my lower front teeth. I was never tempted to ask for novacaine. In fact, the prospect of the needle jab boded more pain than Carlos' drill now burrowing into my dentin.
Within days of returning to Hillsborough, I picked up my yellowing copy of "We: The Psychology of Romantic Love." Like most Jungians, author Robert A. Johnson argues that "un-appropriated pain" is an intractable problem no matter how skillfully we avoid it. "There is a terrible and immutable law at work," Johnson begins. "We only transform when we take our suffering consciously and voluntarily; to attempt to evade only puts us into cycles that repeat endlessly and produce nothing."
More pointedly, Ivan Illich -- former priest and founder of the "De-Schooling" movement --- observes: "The medical campaign to eliminate pain overlooks the connection between pain and happiness. As we decrease our sensitivity to pain we also decrease our ability to experience the simple joys and pleasures of life. The result is that stronger and stronger stimuli - drugs, violence, horror - are needed to provide people in an anesthetic society with a sense of being alive. Increasingly, pain-killing promises an artificially painless life and turns people into unfeeling spectators of their own decaying selves. The very idea of having pain killed by somebody else, rather than facing it, was alien to traditional cultures because pain was a part of man's participation in a marred universe. Its meaning was cosmic and mythic and not individual and technical. Pain was the experience of the soul's evolution, and the soul was present all over the body. The doctor could not eliminate the need to suffer without doing away with the patient."
The artists' community in Mérida publishes a free tabloid entitled "El Juglar". Where the New York Times boasts "All the News that's Fit to Print," El Juglar declares "El placer es felicidad de los locos. La felicidad es placer de los sabios." ("Pleasure is happiness for lunatics. Happiness is pleasure for the wise.") Turn to El Juglar's second page and find this epigram: "En el dolor está la escuela de la vida. Con él nos hacemos sabios." ("Pain is the school of life. In it, we become wise.")
What if suffering is, in some way, essential to health? What if happiness requires the discipline of sitting still, slowing down, doing less? What if the compulsive achievements of Type-A "cultural hijackers" comprise the roots of despair?
What if the survival of the biosphere requires an argument against "success"?
Robert Lane's "The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies" (Yale University Press) draws attention to the unexpected desperation spreading across developed countries. Lane sees a direct relationship between our mounting sense of meaninglessness and Oscar Wilde's observation that cynics are people "who know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
We get to the top of the capitalist ladder to discover it's leaning against the wrong wall.
Still, who among us doesn't want to be a millionaire?
Our eagerness to make a "a big killing" --- to walk away with an "options package" to-die-for --- is, largely, a reaction to the meaninglessness of modernity and the make-believe value of most modern occupations. Why do we pretend that paper-pushing and information management are more important than trash collection, ditch-digging or migrant labor stooping to harvest our next feast?
Having navigated The Meritocracy, data-grazers feel certain we deserve socio-economic favor. We have worshipped at the altar of information, and God has been good to us.
Perhaps my nagging doubts are bullshit.
Ominously, The Machine admits no doubt.
More speed, more productivity, more consumption and more technology delineate an orthodoxy more rigid than the Vatican ever dreamed.
Ironically, all these things all this stuff - don't translate into generosity or kindred feeling.
They suffocate the spirit. They stifle inspired magnanimity.
Across the Yucatan, tourists ignore beggars even though a ten centavo coin is worth one tenth of an American penny. A single American dollar -- and a smiling face -- could extend hope (if not relief) to a thousand beggars.
According to Enrique Puc, the generosity of the Yucatan's rural poor never fails. "Su bondad," he says, "es más que la ciudad." - "Their goodness is greater than city folks."
I recall my early exploration of Mexico's Sierra Madre and the high cordilleras of Colombia and Ecuador. Year after year, I'd hike these mountains -- days removed from pavement -- confident that, come sundown, I'd approach the nearest campesino's "choza" and be offered dinner and a convivial night's lodging. Typically, householders insisted I sleep in their own bed while they slept on the dirt floor. Only once was I turned away by two women whose men-folk had trekked to a distant market and wouldn't be back 'til tomorrow.
Enrique said "You know, you've got to take second class buses to meet the people."
Unfortunately, second-class buses don't have air-conditioning.
And so, the air-conditioned nightmare prevails. We occupy our comfortable bubbles, seldom making direct contact with peasants who -- by one noteworthy prediction -- will inherit the earth.
When I first visited the Yucatan in 1971, I remember my clear sense that the Mayan people were biding their time, patiently waiting for the current world order to collapse. Then, they would pick up where they left off, calmly resuming lives cut short by the Spanish Conquest.
Thirty years later, Mayan women still squat on market stools with a solidity and immovability that confirm my sense of pending resurgence.
Early in the colonial era, Bishop de Landa burned most Mayan codices as "works of the devil." Ironically, the
Chilam Balam survived --- an apocalyptic text with striking resemblance to Judeo-Christian cosmology.
Another apocalyptic myth also survives. In "El Quinto Mundo," Aztec visionaries claim we human beings were created as the centerpiece of God's fifth attempt at creation. The myth goes on to say that if this world fails, there will not be another.
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