Monday, November 22, 2010

Ignorance is Bliss: My Retirement versus Theoretical Suffering

This was the query shared at meeting for worship yesterday:

How do we attend to the suffering of others in our local community, in our state and nation, and in the world community? Do we try to understand the causes of suffering and do we address them as a Meeting?
-Pacific Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice

One friend arose to speak about John Woolman and how his witness against the evil of slavery began as a private concern but matured and grew with the spiritual and practical support of his yearly meeting.

I think about our modern life and how little most of us are touched by the institutionalized suffering of others. In the days of slavery, I imagine one could not avoid being aware of the keeping of other human beings as chattel. Nowadays, our lives are comfortable and we are quite well insulated from the variety of human suffering equal to slavery. We are all exposed to news articles about human trafficking, for instance, but our lives seem to be far removed from the prostitution rings we hear about. I would say that unless we work in public schools, medical clinics or as social workers, we probably are not exposed to hunger or abuse. And hunger and abuse can be viewed as singular problems, one child, one family-individual problems with individual solutions: make a phone call to Second Harvest or Children's Services and we've done our duty.

We all hear about the terrible atrocities that occur in third world countries. We know about genocides and wars, famine, disaster and disease. Those things are real but at such a remove that we don't, and really, can't feel any immediacy about how those things are connected to our world. If we do feel a tug at our hearts, we make a donation to Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross and feel (mostly) absolved of responsibility.

I wonder how many of us have a 401k or other retirement program? The overwhelming majority, I would guess. It is utterly unheard of for middle class Americans to not have a retirement savings plan. Retirement, for healthy middle class people, is
the opportunity to quit work and still have sufficient financial resources to allow us to do all the things we currently aren't able to do because we spend all our time working. Retirement is the time when we can be who we want to be and live the way we want to live: The kids are grown, the house is paid for and we can travel and garden and golf. Because we earned it. Because we were smart and planned ahead and invested wisely.

But what does that mean, "invested wisely"? We work at jobs that provide for us a 401k or other retirement plan or, if needed, we set up a Roth IRA. We make contributions to our plans and, if we're lucky, we become vested and the company we work for matches our contributions. We may or may not have the ability to specify how the money in our accounts are invested--all in stocks, all in bonds or split between these. We do a little research, make the "wise" decision and feel very good about our future (until the stock market takes a hit and we feel very insecure because we "lost" some amount of what we thought we had).

What happens to that money? It's invested. Invested? In what? Where? How? How many of us with retirement investments have a clue where our money goes? Not many, I'd wager. Yes, we may be given the opportunity to choose the types of investments but how many people are given the option of choosing the actual companies invested in? So how is our money distributed? To what corporations? What do they do with the money? We have no idea. The money could be invested in a mom & pop start-up, it could be funding the continuing expansion of an internet behemoth or it could be adding to the power of a corrupt global corporation. I would never support a multi-national corporation to purchase water rights in impoverished countries nor do I encourage deforestation or child slavery: But possibly I have with money I have invested.

We'd like to think our money is going out into the world to help create positive action but I truly doubt it. I imagine our money is being used to grow, grow, grow wealth, whatever the cost. Which, if we're really honest with ourselves, is exactly what we want it to do. We want our money to grow our personal wealth so we may retire in comfort.

Am I being too harsh? Naive? We're just doing what everyone does. We're not actively trying to hurt anyone. Surely our retirement investments must be doing good work or our investment firms wouldn't put our money in them. I mean, I know there's a lot of corruption in the world but I can trust the investment firm my company works with, can't I? As long as our intentions are good, that's all that matters, right?

I think of John Woolman. He did not own slaves but benefited indirectly from slavery by the positive impact slavery had on the economy through lower costs for goods. As he became convicted, he found that he could no longer participate even peripherally. From

John refused to write wills, bills of sale, or any other document that perpetuated slavery. He boycotted slave products, willing to appear foolish in the eyes of others. And he capitalized on every opportunity to explain why he did not use the cotton, silver, rum, sugar or dyed clothing that others found acceptable. It wasn't easy for John to appear "singular". He would have preferred not to. But he understood that actions spoke where words would not, and that actions faithful to God's leadings have a power to persuade.

I wonder what John Woolman would think of the modern economic situation in which we feel absolved of responsibility for the impact our money has on the world due to our complete disconnect from it. Much of our wealth is intangible and unreal. We never see it except symbolically in charts and projections and so feel no connection to it nor culpability for the harm it may cause other people and the Earth.

I offer no suggestions but am resting with these questions.