Thursday, 16 April 2009

A Better World

One of the best books that I have ever read was Vicente Romero's Donde anidan los angeles: Historias de la lucha contra la injusticia (Where angels nest: Stories of the struggle against injustice). Published in 2004, I had purchased the book in Madrid a few days before I went to live in El Salvador.

In his book, Romero - an atheist - documented the efforts of several individuals scattered all over the planet; individuals who were determined to fight against the suffering that still plagues so many parts of the world. Many of those interviewed were Roman Catholic missionaries.

As stated in a previous post, there is probably no other organisation that has done so much to help other human beings in the way that the Roman Catholic Church has done over a number of centuries. Of course, there have been several political parties and non-governmental organisations that have also contributed to improving the lives of thousands of individuals. Yet, as we read about the increasing inequality in most parts of the world and as we read about the many social ills that still affect millions of human beings, there are several times when the efforts mentioned by countless politicians in summit after summit appear to be little more than pleasant rhetoric. In such a situation, one could not be blamed for asking: how could the world be transformed in order to become a better place for ALL people?

In his work, Romero echoed similar concerns. Indeed, he wrote "What instruments of change are available to those who decide to rebel against a radically unfair system, established as the best of all possible worlds? Political parties, social movements, humanitarian organisations, individual projects...? All could count, but none are working. The classical leftist movement has disappeared, reduced to ideological discourse and to sterile testimonies...Parties and trade unions have lost their identifying traits and in practice seem to be accept the inevitability of injustice when it comes to the global distribution of wealth, giving up even the dream of revolutions against a system that was unacceptable in the light of the principles that had given rise to them a long time ago" (pp. 12-13).

As various organisations are hardly anywhere to be found in those parts of the world where a great deal of help is required, the Roman Catholic Church has never given up its commitment to provide assistance to those who have nobody else to look to for a piece of bread, a life-saving medicine, a hug...Even though Romero does not believe in God, he cannot hide his praise for the many missionaries who have brought some degree of happiness to thousands of people.

When I read Romero's interviews with the Catholic missionaries that he met, I was fascinated by how critical many of them were of the type of church that seemed to be more interested in rules and in dogma than in following Jesus's example of building a better world by helping other human beings. In the post I wrote a few days ago, I mentioned my belief that the Roman Catholic Church could attract more people if it implemented a number of changes. Taking celibacy as an example, one of the priests told Romero "The [Church] hierarchy should think seriously about it since celibacy is causing many dysfunctions" (p. 173).

One part of the book also contained an interesting discussion about the notion of salvation. When asked about the latter, Enrique Figaredo - the Jesuit priest quoted above - said the following: "God's salvation starts here. It consists in the fact that all people have something to eat, that people are able to get an education and medicines. Theologically, salvation is feeling loved by God. But how are you going to tell a person that God loves them if they lack a roof over their head and if their children are in pain because of hunger? I cannot understand religious work that is done only by preaching since deeds are also important, doing something that could change people's lives. For this reason, when dealing with the communities I work with, I try to avoid cult clubs and I try to ensure that they are organisations that can help others" (p. 172).

Talking about catechism, Joaqui Salord - another Jesuit priest - had some interesting views. Indeed, he said "Look, catechism does not worry me. I have never used it. That is something that belongs to a very narrow section of the Church. For example, when they say that what is moral is not cultural...yet most moral values are cultural! The same thing applies to catechism. Although I can barely remember what I had studied, I could not forget that it defined God as 'our Father who art in heaven, who rewards the good and punishes the bad'. Such an image of God was very harmful for me; I noticed that I was believing in a sort of judge, that I had grown up with such an absurd belief, and in order to be free I had to kill that God who had been transformed into a policeman. In my family, we believed in a different type of God; not in a salvation obtained through merit, but in a God that offers, invites, gives. There isn't a a heaven for good people and a hell for evil individuals. We construct heaven and hell. Good and evil are a part of every person, like the two sides of the same coin, and human beings have the potential to do both" (p. 176).

I do believe that it is possible to build a better world. At the risk of sounding too simplistic or romantic, I think that this can only be done if we are guided by love. A love for ourselves and for every other human being.


Fake Intimacy

It seems plausible to say that most human beings spend most of their waking hours outside their homes. Although those individuals might have romantic partners and a kid or two, a typical working day involves spending more time in the company of colleagues than with one's family. As people work together, it is quite inevitable that they will learn more about one another; personal beliefs, past experiences, and hobbies often end up being disclosed to a person's work buddies relatively quickly. Furthermore, as more people make use of Internet social networks, it becomes far easier to discover certain things about one's colleagues.

Spending several hours a day, week after week, month after month with a number of individuals could make one believe that such time could allow various friendships to develop. In this way, the workplace could be regarded as an excellent place to make friends. And even though I am quite sure that some wonderful friendships owe their origins to a work setting, my experiences have led me to believe that most jobs give rise to a fake intimacy between the employees. Some might accuse me of being too negative by using such a heavy term, but I will shed some more light on this phenomenon to show how real it is.

Whilst we are at work, we frequently have to collaborate with certain individuals, regardless of whether we want to or not. As this happens, colleagues tend to open up with each other; they talk about the movies they have watched, the books they read, the latest piece of furniture they bought, and so on. As personal information is exchanged, a certain bond might be created, but the strength of this bond often appears to be similar to the strength of a house of cards.

It is frequently said that hard times help to test a friendship. Thus, if a person is very ill at home, they would probably hope that their friendly colleagues at work would send a message or call to ensure that everything is fine. If there is a problem that is causing a great deal of stress, they are very likely to hope that the closest colleagues would attempt to provide some type of help.

Sadly, it seems that most work-related "friendships" are little more than forced and convenient relationships that are brushed aside and forgotten quite easily once a person moves to a new job or even a new department. Having said this, it is possible to understand how lost many people feel once they retire; after years spent working with other individuals, some of whom were probably regarded as "good friends", it must feel horrible to retire and to suddenly realise that those "friends" never bother to meet up, to call, or to simply continue forming a part of one's life.

The fake intimacy that seems to be characteristic of so many workplaces becomes extremely noticeable when an employee suggests organising a social event. All sorts of excuses start cropping up and the event often ends up being scrapped or is attended by only a handful of individuals.

With all the talk about team-work in countless employment settings, it is surprising to notice that even though individuals frequently team up to work on a project, all the care and attention that is seen within the team frequently seems to evaporate once the project is completed. Consequently, it appears possible to argue that whereas many people do not hesitate to bond with each other in order to make their employers richer, it appears that they do not find it equally easy to take a strong and enduring interest in the welfare of their colleagues.

Considering that we spend only a fraction of our time during the week with our family and with other loved ones, it would be so nice to see a different type of workplace. It would be so nice to witness a setting which encourages people to truly care about one another. It would be great to see more genuine intimacy.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!

Ever since I was around 16 years old, my views about justice seemed to differ from those of many other people I knew. Although defining justice is not something that could be done very simply in a blog article, I tend to regard it as the creation of the best possible conditions for ALL people. In my eyes, anything which is intended to cause physical or psychological harm cannot be regarded as just.

Sadly, there are many individuals who still believe that justice is mainly about punishment. According to this view, if A does something to hurt B, justice would involve a punishment being inflicted on A, depending on the type of harm caused to B. To me, this is not justice; such thinking is rooted in vengeance. And no matter how much one tries to justify harming another human being in the name of "justice", I strongly believe that any legal system that embraces the notion of causing pain to others is in desperate need of change.

This brings me to the topic of capital punishment. I consider the latter as the most barbaric way of dealing with individuals who are accused of breaking certain laws. It is even more shocking to see that this system is still so popular in the US, a country that talks so much about safeguarding human rights!

Over the years, I have read a great deal about criminal behaviour. I have read about dictators, rapists, serial killers, etc. Contrary to popular belief, as I examined the biographies of several wrong-doers, I never found a single shred of evidence to suggest that they were monsters; every person was born and lived as a human being. The sad thing that is often omitted from discourse about crime is that just as the typical human being is equipped to do a lot of good in society, the average person is also biologically equipped to carry out countless evil acts if they are exposed to certain circumstances.

There are several variables which are expected to affect human behaviour. The type of parenting one received, school experiences, formal and informal education, type of food that is eaten, national culture, and religious beliefs are just a few examples. At this stage, I believe that it is very important to highlight the relationship between a person's social and physical environment and the biological functioning of that person. More specifically, if I am living in an environment which promotes certain ideas, my brain is going to "replay" those beliefs over and over until they influence my behaviour to varying degrees. When an individual lives in a highly stressful environment for a long period of time, it appears that this could give rise to certain psychological conditions which could eventually lead to criminal behaviour.

The most frustrating thing about criminal or evil behaviour is that we are still not in a position to diagnose certain conditions very easily. Sadly, several diagnoses are made only following the carrying out of a criminal act. Unlike an individual who has a common cold and can be seen to be ill by several people, the groundwork underlying criminal behaviour cannot be observed in the same way. I could be standing next to a serial killer without knowing anything about the person's illness!

My position is that all ill people deserve treatment. Just as no society should turn its back on an individual suffering from HIV, no society should mistreat a person who is suffering from a psychological illness. The fact that certain illnesses constitute a grave threat to several members of a specific society does not mean that capital punishment is the only solution. Even if the illness itself does not seem able to respond to any existing type of treatment, executing people on an electric chair or by hanging or by lethal injection should never, ever be the solution.

Some people might be wondering about the victims of crime or evil. I believe that whoever has suffered as a result of harm caused by another person should receive all the necessary assistance in order to be able to move on with their lives. From a victim's perspective, it is essential that they feel safe. In other words, if somebody was sexually assaulted, they need to know that the person who committed the crime is being supervised or treated by the authorities. As stated at the beginning of this article, justice should not consist of a process whereby one party benefits whilst the other is subjected to a deterioration in their physical or psychological welfare.

As far as criminal law is concerned, it is my hope that the notions of vengeance will be replaced by the idea of rehabilitation. Criminals need to be cured; torture or any other type of harm will surely not contribute to creating a better society for everyone! Prisons need to be similar to secure treatment facilities. Furthermore, the authorities need to devote more resources to the extremely hard process of reconciling the criminal with the victim/victim's relatives.

Sadly, countless human beings have the habit of trying to judge others as good or evil on the basis of a handful of deeds. When analysing human behaviour in such a black-or-white way, it is very easy to forget that even the most evil person has probably done several good things throughout their lives.

Depending on its goal, judging itself can be a very destructive process. As stated by Dr M Scott Peck in People of the Lie, "We must also remember the purpose for which we judge. If it is to heal, fine. If it is to enhance our own self-esteem, our pride, then the purpose is wrong" (p. 294).

Perhaps it is possible to say that for most people, loving the sinner and hating the sin is much easier said than done. By loving the sinner, however, one is contributing to improving the life of another human being. As this happens, the whole society stands to benefit because as the saying goes, "What goes around comes around".

In People of the Lie, Dr M Scott Peck echoed the importance of loving those who have made mistakes sometime during their lives. Indeed, the Harvard-trained psychiatrist made his point in the following way: "How is it possible to love people who are evil? Yet that is precisely what I am saying we must do. Specifically, if we are to safely conduct research on evil people, we must do so in love. We must start from an a priori position of love for them" (p. 307).


Monday, 13 April 2009

Job Hunting in Stormy Times

Earlier on today, on one of the Italian TV channels, there was a programme featuring a 36-year-old guy who has been looking for a job since October 2008. The guy was sitting in the studio next to his septuagenarian mother; apart from her son, the woman did not seem to have anyone else who could look after her.

One of the things that really struck me was that the guy has a degree in languages and a diploma as a translator. He had worked as a salesman for 4 years, but the company shut down in September of last year. It is quite disturbing to think that given such a baggage, the guy has been unable to find a decent job for so many months!

Some individuals might think that he has been unemployed for so long because he was being choosy when it came to job hunting. That was clearly not the case. Indeed, he said that he had even applied to work as a school janitor, but he was not accepted.

At one point, he was asked whether he would consider moving to another place to look for a job. I thought that the question was a bit silly since the guy cannot just pack and move to wherever he wants to when he is also the primary source of help for his mother.

In my view, the most offensive part of the programme was when a psychiatrist and a representative of some employment agency expressed their opinions about the guy. The psychiatrist made the guy look as though he barely had any coping skills when he suggested the need for psychotherapy. The employment agency representative was even worse; echoing ideas that are frequently expressed by those who are fairly comfortable, he placed most of the blame on the guy. Between the lines, the representative was telling the guy: "Forget about the State and about other people...only you can solve your unemployment problem!" Honestly, if I had been sitting in the unemployed guy's seat, I would probably have told the employment agency representative, "Well, if the State cannot do much to help me, why on earth should I bother voting during election times? Why should I elect people to power when they will ignore my pleas for help?"

I think that the cult of excessive individualism has become so strong that even when discussing social problems such as unemployment, there is this idea that every person has to struggle on their own to solve their own difficulties. In this way, the notion of collective action is brushed aside and countless politicians just continue dishing out wonderful speeches about plans which are hardly ever translated into reality.


Saturday, 11 April 2009


Reflections about the Roman Catholic Church

Another Easter Sunday is just round the corner. Although I do not consider myself as a Roman Catholic, I am still able to identify a number of very positive things related to this belief system.

The commitment to help the poor has, I believe, rarely been echoed by any other religious or secular organisation. Countless representatives of the Roman Catholic Church have ventured to places characterised by so much misery that I cannot help feeling the greatest admiration for such people. It must be fiendishly difficult for a person who grew up in a relatively comfortable Western country to drop everything in order to go to some corner of the world where whole villages might lack essential supplies.

Helping the sick has also been a wonderful achievement of the Roman Catholic Church. Many hospitals and clinics have been set up by the Church in order to provide much-needed medical assistance to hundreds of thousands of people.

Apart from the tangible achievements of the Roman Catholic Church, I believe that many lives have been changed for the better through an exposure to a certain view of Jesus. Similar to Socrates, Jesus never wrote any books and whatever we know about him came from other people. Having said this, many would agree that Jesus represents the type of person who believes that there can never be any true and lasting happiness in the universe as long as there is even one human being who is in some sort of pain. Furthermore, the message that is often attributed to Jesus is one of unconditional love; no matter how much other people might hate you or wish you harm, it is essential that such hatred is never returned with an equal or greater amount of negative energy. When we are told that Jesus asked God to forgive those who were killing him, I am stunned by his apparent determination to distinguish the sinner from the sin; the latter should be despised, but a hand should always be extended to the former in order to help them become better individuals. According to the Scriptures, Jesus never sentenced any specific person to eternal suffering.

The above factors had helped to guide me during my days as a Roman Catholic believer. Yet, since the age of 16, it has been virtually impossible for me to reconcile the nice things mentioned above with the many rules and beliefs that were written by human beings during the centuries following Jesus's death and which became part of the Roman Catholic faith. In my view, as long as the Roman Catholic Church continues to uphold the following beliefs, it will continue losing members and it will also continue looking more distant from the Jesus that comes across to the average reader of the Bible:

a.) The ban on female priests;
b.) The ban on contraceptives;
c.) The condemnation of sex before marriage;
d.) The fact that all priests must be celibate;
e.) The belief that homosexuality does not form a part of God's Plan;
f.) The absolute rejection of divorce.

I think that the Church will eventually change its position on many of the points listed above, but it will take a very brave Pope to initiate such changes. When will these changes occur? Sadly, there is no easy answer to this question. Some of the changes could start within the next decade, but it is extremely likely that most of the changes would require another 50 years before the world starts witnessing them.


My Voice in the Blogosphere

Why should one have a blog? Is it the desire to reveal our innermost thoughts and fears to the world in order to feel that there are other people who share our viewpoints? Is it the belief that blogging could contribute to expanding one's social network?

There could be numerous reasons that explain the modern phenomenon of blogging. Some individuals might prefer to focus on events in their personal lives whereas others could feel more attracted to analysing several political events.

In my case, I enjoy sharing what I consider to be pleasant with the rest of the world. If I go somewhere and take some beautiful photos, I like publishing them for everyone to see. Having said this, I also enjoy focusing on countless issues affecting the millions of people around the world who are suffering as a result of an unfair distribution of wealth and as a consequence of unfair laws. Unlike the rich and the highly-educated individuals, the suffering as well as the poor frequently find it extremely hard to sound their thoughts and fears. Many of them tend to be caught up in a daily struggle to survive which does not allow much time to educate and/or to develop their skills.

When I write against neo-liberalism and when I denounce the rhetoric of several politicians, I do this because I know that unless countless laws and economic systems are truly altered, millions of people will go on living in a state of unnecessary poverty and pain. Rather than using my blog to win a comfortable seat in some European Union institution, I often try to depict situations and arguments that tend to be brushed aside by the mainstream media. Every time I write about my belief that every person should be guaranteed a job by the State, my mind goes to the millions of people around the world who have been laid off or who cannot find a job. Simply telling such individuals that they have my solidarity is not enough! When faced with pain, I think that most people would not want pity or words; they would want an effective remedy!!!

As a person, I do not have the power to change laws or to alter the way in which wealth is currently being distributed in most countries. Yet, it is my hope that many of the articles I write reflect the thoughts of many out there who might not have the resources or the courage to express certain views. In this way, my voice will be their voice and they will feel a little bit better to know that there is someone who is determined to say certain things and who wants to see a number of fundamental changes being carried out as soon as possible.