For the past six weeks I have been living in eastern Andhra Pradesh, India, dividing my time between the city of Vijayawada and a small village an hour and a half away, Srikakulam. I’m working with a grass-roots non-profit agency called Arthik Samata Mandal (ASM), which began as a disaster relief organization, and now works in a broad range of areas, including AIDS education and awareness, holistic community development, health and hygiene, women’s economic empowerment and micro-finance.
Part of the work I have been doing has been designing, shooting photography and writing copy for a series of brochures on three of their programs. As an outgrowth of that, I had a good session yesterday with my friend Subha, who was interested in learning the little bit I know about layout and design. We looked at a series of brochures— some impressive and some a little less-so— and talked about what worked and what didn’t from a design point of view.
ASM has tended to try to get as many words on a page as possible in most of the material they’ve published, and one of the options I suggested was that some bigger spaces and careful placement of photos and other graphics can make people feel a little less overwhelmed by type. That can make a page more accessible, and give the reader a way in. The margins were very thin on some of the pages we looked at. It was a crush of words, with very little room to move, breathe or pause for reflection.
A few hours later I was on the back of a motorcycle, weaving through the whirling waterfall of metal and glass that is Indian traffic. The cars seem to lunge and pile on top of each other like football players trying to push through an opposing team’s defensive line. They almost push each other out of the way, with no suggestion of lanes being observed, only an inch or so between them at times, though in my experience they very seldom actually collide.
There are very thin margins, and so much to fit in.
Today I visited several areas of Vijayawada, including what was described to me as a ‘slum.’ It is a government project to give better housing to people who were living in makeshift agglomerations of cardboard and plastic beside the Krishna River, or simply lying on the ground exposed, before they came here. At the first glance of a western eye it looks like intense poverty— extremely small houses crammed together, garbage on the ground and open sewers flowing beside the dirt streets. But this is the ‘after’ picture, not the ‘before.’ It is a huge step forward— living in rows of very small cinder block houses and cooking on small gas burners instead of burning garbage and dung to cook over. Having any kind of toilet at all is also a significant change. The government’s adjustment of the margins has made a meaningful positive difference.
Needless to say, I am uncomfortable with my own wealth here. Though very few people in my own U.S. context would consider me affluent (an erstwhile professional musician and current student, married to a teacher and very slowly buying a 1000-square-foot home from the bank). Here in India, though, I am unspeakably wealthy. I have several pairs of shoes, a camera, a laptop, etc.
The technological doodads I travel with these days are the tools of my trade, and I can justify them from at least one angle, sitting a little uncomfortably next to my belief in simplicity. On other days, though, my justifications appear rather pale. A woman I interviewed in the weavers’ village of Ghantasala a couple of weeks ago proudly told me that her daughter now had a job where she is making 1000 rupees per month, and out of that she’s sending money home to help her family. 1000 rupees, at the current exchange rate, is about $22. My laptop alone is equivalent to five and a half years of that salary.
I am not the first to struggle with the question of how to deal with my own privilege and live a life of integrity. Many observations have been offered before, including the Libertarian perspective that the way to help the poor is not to increase their ranks by joining them. The point has also been made that wealth is not only material— the social poverty of a country like mine, where most people do not know their neighbors beyond a nodding acquaintance and would never consider asking them to watch their kids while they go to the market (without even mentioning the lack of markets), is staggering from the context of a village like the one where we are living now.
Still, the inequity of distribution of money is inescapable, and the choices I make as to how to spend my own are sometimes hard for me to defend, even to myself. In the end, I make many choices each time I spend money: a choice to spend it on one thing and many choices not to spend it on others.
A more important difference than cash flow, or even balance sheet, though, is safety net. Arguably the most significant economic dividing line between myself and the people I’m spending my days with now and many people in the West struggling to make ends meet is that I have credit cards in my pocket. I have a margin of error. If I get sick, if I melt down, I can go home anytime; I can go to a good hospital; I can check into a good hotel.
These thoughts and feelings can quickly become as confused and chaotic as the traffic I hear outside as I write these words— a constant roaring and winding of engines large and small, and a cacophony of car horns playing loud musical snatches of songs in different keys, like an orchestra tuning up.
Everyone must find their own way to live and seek to make their own peace with these challenges. Gandhi, whose face looks out from every denomination of Indian money, would remind us that making peace is not the same as finding it. My task isn’t to find effective justifications to allow me to avoid the problem. My task is to engage the problem and wrestle actively with it; it is to seek truth and integrity in my thoughts and deeds, while understanding that finding those two things may be an unachievable goal.
The questions I start with are these— What actions should I take? How do I live with the imperfection of any course available, and find peace there, “walking lightly over the earth,” as Quakers say? What is true regarding questions of justice and distribution of wealth? These are my queries, to be contemplated and engaged, and simply to be present with. I will continue to think and write about them, and to experiment with my own life and actions. I will have many more late-night conversations and continue to read the thoughts of others on these questions, and I doubt that I will ever stop scribbling in the margins.
john Arnold says
David, I just read this post from a couple of months ago on the heels of reading that you will be coming back to the U.S. in about a month. I am concerned for you in that the confusing you describe I fully anticipate an exponential magnification when you come back home a try to reintegrate. I spent a summer in Alaska as a missionary and was not exposed to near the level of poverty you have been but felt many comparable feelings. When I came home they went into hyper over drive. I had a friend go through the same experience upon returning to the US after peace corp work in costa rica.
bottomline, be gentle with yourself. watch closely for feelings of “know one gets it”, anger, confusion, etc. An intentionality of what I would call anchored wandering can go a long way toward detoxing those feelings. I will try to put together a short explanation of what I mean by that and get it to you via facebook. Anyways, prayers of peace for you when you begin that transition.
Mary Davis says
Your prose is as nourishing to read as your song/poetry.
The subject matter stirs my own sense of responsibility to make this world a better place and to make use of my fortunate circumstances to serve, and be grateful. But I tend to feel the same way you do. And maybe we are supposed to wrestle with the realities of life. It’s the tension sometimes in that wrestling that provides the fuel for growth and giving – IF we don’t let it overburden us to the point of paralysis!
You are an inspiration David. Thank you so much for taking the TIME to share your experience. I loved your publishing analogy about ‘leaving space’. The ‘soul’ DEMANDS space to enter our lives. Creating that space, and meeting responsibilities is what I wrestle with most! Reading your blog and taking the time to respond has been some of that ‘soul’ space I don’t get enough of.
Is there an address where I can send you the CD? I can’t believe I haven’t done that yet! I never meant for you to be a casualty of me creating space!
Let me know.
Sending love to you, Deanna, and little Mason
Your thoughts and questions and Ben Foxworth’s comments are worth saving and savoring. I’ll look forward to reading how you grapple with these issues over the days and weeks and years to come.
Ben Foxworth says
May I suggest …
You consider the words of Susan Werner. 🙂 I encountered this song as sung by Vance Gilbert, whom I believe you know, too.
(Lyrics copied from here.)
And a YouTube of Susan singing her incredible song may be found here. (I don’t know if your site supports embedding, or if that would be appropriate.)
I post this because of your deliberations about the ‘ethics of endowment,’ I guess one could say. It may be that we make decisions about our circumstances of birth in some prior forum, I cannot say. I can say that the ‘you’ that currently makes the decisions for you in this life did not have any conscious say in where and to whom you were born, in what abilities you would have (though you did in how and to what degree you would exercise and develop those), nor in what circumstances others in our world would face.
In my view, that you have “means” isn’t occasion for any crisis of conscience. As Susan Werner sang, you have a world that’s been addressed to you, and all of that is merely a detail of that address, miraculous and magical all the same. But the critical lyric, for me, is in the next stanza.
Be at peace about the different starting points, and focus with a clear conscience on setting right that which is yours to set right. I see you doing this with great spirit and commitment, and I trust that on all important levels, those who encounter you will come to know that, too.
And if you have a moment, give a thought as well to the brilliant gift of peace Susan Werner has given all of us with her incredible, uplifting song. Vance Gilbert does that, too, and David LaMotte does, too, in those fine compositions coming to us from posterity.
Best to you and your family.
I am moved and very impressed by your choices and pursuits in this life. Bless you my friend. I am in awe of you and can only aspire to grab a firmer hold on this reality. Good luck in your sojourn and please continue to find this good path.
My Best, boB Meyer
David Stuart says
Beautifully written DLM!