During a writing class early in my college teaching career, a student read aloud his essay fiercely celebrating the United States’ standard of living as highest in the world.
I remember nothing of his argument, however, because, as the other students were preparing their comments for the author, a young man from a tiny impoverished African nation, quietly beckoned to me.
“In my country,” he whispered, “we don’t think Americans have a high standard of living.”
Startled, I listened as he listed abused children (Joel Steinberg had just been convicted of abusing and murdering little Lisa), hunger, and widespread homelessness among his reasons for this.
“We have no homeless people in my country, he whispered. “When something happens, another family will take them in. Even if we have little food, we share it with those who have none. We don’t have fancy cars or big houses, but we don’t measure our standard of living by that. Our standard of living is the people.”
At least thirty years have passed since that day, but when I came across his words in an old notebook the other day, I was right back in that classroom.
Even if his claims for his country were exaggerated, his words take on new resonance for me today, as I continue my journey to live out the Gospel message of Jesus and to work for justice and peace in our society.
The Easter season calls me to have greater hope that renewal is possible, not only in the trees and gardens around me, but also in the human heart, and therefore in our society. Remembering that student's words calls me to re-examine my own life in light of Jesus' command to "Love one another as I have loved you" and also in light of the very different reality in which billions of people live.
My student's simple statement – “Our standard of living is the people” – leads me to reflect on my own choices. Do I think of the effect of each action on other people? Is the good of all people (“the common good”) at the heart of my choices?
On a larger scale, what are our standards as a nation? In spite of all our freedoms and the many blessings of our American way of life, how can we allow one in five of our children to continue to live in poverty? Is our current high unemployment an acceptable balance to increased profits?
Why are these not at the center of our thoughts and of the political candidates' speeches?
That we can change the conditions under which people suffer is clear from the recent report on the Millennium Developments Goals. (If you are not familiar with these Goals agreed to by all the nations of the world in 2000, see http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/)
A joint report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF in early March states that about 89% of the people on Earth now have access to safe drinking water; half of those who had no safe water in 1990 now have access to it.
Similarly, the World Bank reports that the number of people living in extreme poverty (the equivalent of less than $1.25 a day) has been halved since 1990. All of this is happening because of focused action on great needs of people, by the international community working with local communities. (The other half of each group, of course, still needs our assistance).
So, if we – as individuals and as a nation – put our minds and will to focusing on the needs of people, especially the most deprived people, we can make substantial change.
Do I, do we, have the will to make the good of all people the standard by which we measure our greatness? Can we demand that our elected officials share this standard in their work for us?
What new “Spring Cleaning” of my awareness and actions can I undertake to allow the common good to be my standard, thereby stimulating the renewal of our society this year?