The Matchbook Diaries


Defining Bad

Pettiness is a luxury.  In Tanzania you almost never, and I do mean never, see a child have a temper tantrum.  Wealthy Tanzanian children of the elite who shop in grocery stores where I shop, those children have them continuously, but the children in the streets, they don’t complain.  My aya, which means “auntie” in Kiswahili, but is actually what we call housekeepers, my Aya Olipa recently got pregnant for the first time.  Her husband has insurance, so she is one of the very lucky ones.  The public hospital opens at 7.  On her maternity check-ups she leaves on the bus at 5am and rides two hours to get there exactly at 7.  So does every other pregnant woman in Dar who can afford to be there.  Then she sits, calmly, politely, in a queue that would cause an uproar in the west.  It’s not a line like at an opening of a movie.  It’s an order of magnitude different.  Lines and lines of chairs are set up and the women sit down in those chairs and wait between 4 and 5 hours to be served, and that is only the beginning of the process.  Often they are randomly sent to the end of the line, or given a task that takes days and requires another trip back.  No one argues.  No one.  They know no one cares if they complain and that they are very likely to be punished for doing so.

Olipa is absolutely honourable.  She misses work for medical check ups, and so she feels obligated to report to my house for work as soon as possible, but after the first time when she wanted to come all the way in for an hour of work I told her that unless she was finished by 11am, there was no reason at all for her to scurry back to work.  Yet invariably, being Olipa, she’d phone me at the exact moment when she was finally done, which was usually around 4pm.  She’d offer,  always, to ride a bus for 45 minutes so that she could work for me the final 15 minutes of the day.

I’ve seen those queues at Tanzanian hospitals, and at the police stations, and at the phone places.  No one complains, stamps their feet, or makes demands.  People sit, resigned utterly to their fate.  Only the comfortable and entitled complain.

Recently I’ve been in the US for an extended time, staying in our house on the island of Islesboro, a tiny place off the coast of Maine accessible only by boat.  Islesboro is quite different from the US mainland in many key respects.  I’m undone by extended time on the mainland, I get confused there, and frightened.  I start to feel even more disoriented and alienated than usual because there is too much buying, too many people eating out, too much news on TV stations and too many fancy cars.

Here on Islesboro, life is just weird and hard enough to retain a great deal of beauty – only 300 people actually hang around for the long, dark, cold winter.  For 6 weeks of the year this place is a playground for the very rich and then those folks leave.  There are no stores except the two tiny grocery stores.  No one sells or buys anything except the farmers and artists at the 2-hour weekly open air markets.  Nevertheless, on the community chats I only skim to avoid exactly what I describe here, I hear the voices that break my heart: people attacking one another over – the length of time it takes to get mail, the cost of some Air BNB place here – the ferry lines – the disposition of some historical artifact from the island’s history – someone who drank too much and was loud – a driver who drove too fast…..

Bad is so quickly tossed out to describe something absurdly unworthy of the term, and yet good is held in prudish reserve and not applied to things that are a wonder.  Coffee!  Hot water!  Dishwashers!  Ducks!  Dogs!  A seal following me whilst I kayak!  The moss that creeps over every single rock.  The trees – so many trees – all quivering in the ocean breeze, all blushing as the weather takes a sharp turn to cold.  The beaches, rank with seaweed and driftwood, empty of people, the water sloshing.  Owls at night!  All so good, so incredibly beautiful and good.  There is so much life here, so much true, undiluted good.

My son suggested, as we were suddenly in the land of TV, that we watch Netflix, and then, in particular, a series that is “amusingly” about Satan come to earth and adorably swept away by his sudden love for humanity.  No, no, I kept correcting the obscenity we were watching in my mind.  It’s truly dark, this cheapening of evil.

Bad – we misunderstand it.  Bad is when you can’t eat because there is not food and no means to get any and you are starving, and your children are dying.  I saw this directly, every day, in Tanzania.  Bad, bad is being a woman utterly and entirely at the mercy of men who intend to groom you for a lifetime of physical and emotional subservience, groomed by punches, rape, and emotional cruelty until that woman is not even there behind her own eyes anymore.  Bad is when there are no more fish in the ocean, when there is no more clean water. Bad’s when someone hits you with their car and doesn’t even slow down.

The devil, the real one whose intention is to disseminate despair and hatred, the devil wants us to badly underestimate hell.  Oh, you know — it can’t be that bad.   You’re right.  It’s much, much, much worse.   No, death, it probably doesn’t hurt.  You walk through that door.  Then the torment begins.  You find yourself in a room with yourself and there is no more distraction and you get to be immersed, forever, in the truth of what you are.  That’s bad – that’s the condition that promotes howling, gnashing of teeth, wailing, and acute unmitigated distress.  I’ve done it, time and time again, writhing in shame and rage about what was done to me.  The small details, those are the ones that catapult me into horror.    Recently I realized that whenever I get into bed I tilt my pelvis upwards.  I’m 56 years old.  I’ve been tilting my pelvis upwards to facilitate rape since I was 3.  Those kinds of things cause me anguish that cuts all the way through me.  The trouble with people who have never suffered is that they are dangerously innocent about what suffering truly is.

In the Game of Thrones, a series illuminating on the use of power, Olenna Tyrell says, moments before Jamie Lannister murders her, “Whatever I imagined necessary for the safety of House Tyrell, I did.  But your sister has done things I wasn’t capable of imagining.  That was my prize mistake. A failure of imagination. She’s a monster, you do know that?”

From a position we wrongly presume to be both safe and comfortable it is terrifyingly easy to underestimate what hard and bad really are and, then, even worse, the smaller our minds become, we tend to grossly overestimate the importance of extreme inconvenience (ie – events that cost thousands of dollars in expenses, or cause days-long or months long annoyance).  God doesn’t give a shit about how long I wait in the ferry line; but God cares how, in what manner I wait.  Am I present?  Do I connect to what is true in that moment?  God doesn’t care so that a judgment can be applied, but rather because when I am subjected to major and minor problems my actual joy can be easily measured if I choose to use events for that purpose.  To presume to complain about such a thing, however, this is a spiritual disaster and signifies that I am actually profoundly miserable.

The devil is absolutely counting on a failure of imagination.  In China I saw depravity – women dragged off for forced abortions and people in actual slavery.  In Bahrain I saw the booming sex slave trade in a hotel one night.  In Dar I’ve seen immolation.  On African beaches I’ve walked among a staggering volume of garbage  – rivers leading to beaches brimming with hospital and industrial waste even as pink flamingos and gigantic heron and storks wade into the sewage and chemical waste to eat – this, this is bad.  The devil, evil, it’s not cute, it’s not mere torment, it’s indescribable torture for an indeterminant amount of time.  Yes, we can agree that Putin or Paul Kagame are bad, but bad begins with a failure of imagination.   What is tempting to write off as excusable pettiness is not at all excusable, nor small in the eyes of God.

Grace means there is time to reconsider, time to respond differently to what is annoying, costly, painful.  There is time to imagine, as literally as possible, what eternity actually means.  Mostly, behind the whining of the miserable, comfortable, angry, loud, wealthy people, what I hear is this, “I feel unimportant.  I feel impotent.  I feel stupid.  I feel ugly.  I feel lonely. I am a failure.”

In comfort there is no room for God; if every irritation is immediately numbed with screaming, distraction, or any number of drugs, there is no doorway for Love.  But embedded in challenge, in the exposure created by unforeseen challenge, there is room, there is an opening for the divine, a chance for God to love me, if I agree to feel whatever it is I actually feel.