The Clarity of Powerlessness

DAY 3: Orange Monks

On a misty morning in the highlands of Thailand I woke up before the sunrise to make it to the starting line for a Chiang Mai 10k race. In the darkness I passed groups of orange-robed monks in twos and threes roaming the streets. Each carried an empty bowl.

The next day I took a pickup to the top of the mountain to see the grand temple (called a wat). One of the other passengers explained the monks to me. “That is their discipline. They believe it is sinful (read: slothful and undisciplined) to eat solid food after noon. Many of them only eat before sunrise and fast the rest of the day, maybe only drinking a little water and some broth. They practicing a spiritual retreat,” she said.

This diet isn’t about body or health; it is about mindfulness. Nothing focuses you on the present moment like hunger that you can do nothing about (or purposefully choose to ignore). Since livining in Gambia in 2003, I’ve fasted for part of every Ramadan since. I did not do it because I am a Muslim (I’m not, though submitting to the will of God seems like a good universal idea). I did it because fasting “recenters” my mind and body. No Christian fast works – the Catholics have a puny vestigual version (no meat on Fridays during Left and 2 bread + water only days during the year), but like your appendix, it has shriveled beyond usefulness. A fast has to be hard to be meaningful. But back to the monks.

What these Buddhist monks do goes beyond fasting. Each morning they roam the streets with empty bowls, simply hoping that a citizen of Chiang Mai will drop a bit of rice or porridge into their bowls. They wake up knowing that there is a chance that they may not eat at all that day. They trust in God (which in their view means to trust in the spirit of the world and follow the example of the Buddha in his quest to separate the body from all desire. Desire is the root of suffering.). What emotions would you experience if you were among them?

Fear? Angst? Doubt? Anxiety? Yearning? Longing?

Of course. But that is the start of this journey. Soon, as each day follows the last, you begin to see a pattern. Food comes. Your faith in humanity grows. You trust in others, and through the generosity of others, you trust in God.

At some point you have an epiphany. Those emotions brought on by daily empty bowls are a littler version of life itself. And that yearning, that anxiety? Those really are rooted in your desire for something universal among all human wants: control. This exercise becomes a discipline. That discipline is learning to put your faith in others, in systems, in the common good, rather than in your own abilities and resources. This daily powerlessness trains you to live beyond the illusion that any person can ever have everything one needs to live alone, splendid, immune to the world.

Love, for one, disobeys the rules of material wealth and power. It lives on another plane, reachable only through our connection to each other.

One or none

Power means being in control of your life. And in the international development context, most people who are the target of aid programs have very little control of their own lives. From the cradle to the grave, others make choices for them. Perhaps they have just one place to live, one affordable school to choose from, one career choice or one local job training program, one uniform diet, one friend who lives abroad, and if you are a girl – perhaps no choice in whom you marry. Without choice, there is no real power. And without choosing, how passionate can each of us be about the life chosen for us?

Many NGOs and big aid agencies also fear the empty bowl experience. They dream of financial autonomy, not effective interdependence. They want more control to reshape the world as they believe it ought to be, and all threats to that control are seen as barriers to their vision, and not the lessons of human nature trying to nudge them. They constantly have their heads in the bowl, counting the grains of rice falling from above, and fail to notice the world which provides those grains might also be speaking to them. Maybe the world is whispering wisdom too softly, or maybe it is speaking nonsense – but they’ll miss all of it if no one is listening.

A few NGOs complain that it is folly to trust in others, or to trust in any system, because these have failed. They remember the hunger pains of a day without porridge, but they forget the gluttonous days when their bowl overflowed and they just kept gorging themselves. They could have filled the bowls of others. We are all struggling along the road, and none of us deserves public shame except that which we bring upon ourselves by our boasts and foolish deeds.

Jesus prayed as a powerless servant

On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, he stayed up praying to God. His mind was unsettled. He prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet do not what I will, but let your will be done.” He wished he could avoid the pain and suffering he foresaw, but he ultimately deferred to the spirit of the world to guide him over his personal needs.

Those who wish to do good in the world, whether through governments, funders, aid agencies, NGOs, or as individuals, would be wise to become the humble, listening servant to the world instead of its next expert and “thought leader.” In my next post I show why our eagerness to “prove Impact” takes us down the wrong road towards self-glorification, when what the world needs most are organizations that serve the people and listen. If we are true servants and do their will, the feedback will be loud and clear. As the powerless servant, the right road will be very clear to us.

Passion Week

  1. the empire – and the hierarchy of aid power
  2. the gratitudes – a blueprint for social prosperity
  3. the clarity of powerlessness
  4. NEXT: only public servants will bring an end to powerty
  5. abandoning organizations on a quest for impact
  6. faith in institutions and Jesus on trial
  7. the path to resurrection is paved in failure
  8. epilogue: why the poor don’t speak up
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