There are people who are capable of devotion, public devotion, to justice. They meant what they said and every day that passes, they mean it more. Wendell Berry
Perpetual devotion to what people call their “business” is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things. Robert Louis Stevenson
I just returned from what was a successful trip to Mexico for Global Action. We were able to both solidify two significant partnerships (Instituto Mora and OPANAL) and confirm our bona fides in the areas of security policy, peacebuilding and the 2030 Development Agenda. We were able to have many urgent and at times reassuring conversations with Mexicans about the currently un-nerving “state of play” in US relations. We even got to see the Mexican president.
But as is often the case when traveling abroad, the most memorable moments were beyond the professional realm: the smoke plumes rising from still-active volcanoes; the harrowing motorbike rides through the streets of Mexico City with my Mora host, Simone Lucatello; the children on sidewalks sweetly selling small Valentine’s candies; the blindingly magnificent religious architecture that almost succeeds in obscuring the slave labor needed to construct it.
And then there is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a place I have visited previously but also a place like few others I have ever visited. Several months distant from the feast which bears Our Lady’s name and the thousands who walk and crawl great distances to refresh their souls and offer their prayers and petitions, the Basilica square was still filled with color and movement: people with their signs and symbols camped out by the hundreds; the huge main church building packed for mass at 10AM on a Wednesday; a young women leading prayers in an old side chapel, her voice unlike most any the chapel has hosted over its long history; persons with disabilities milling around the Basilica edges, hoping for the miracle that will allow them to ditch their canes and wheel chairs at least once more before their death.
In its many incarnations and limitations, devotion was on display here – so much devotion.
Devotion is a word that was in vogue once upon a time, even in our elite centers of learning. We could, during one piece of our collective history, seek training that would allow us to gain cognitive mastery in philosophy and the (then) sciences while leaving space for emotional investments (even passions) of which devotion may well be the most powerful and compelling.
This is a word which now raises eyebrows in elite circles and even in popular culture; something we associate with “religious fanatics” and “true believers” in political and other realms rather than with persons deeply engaged with art, with family, with civic pursuits of all kinds.
Indeed, our goal in professional life too often now is to stay detached, to “be cool,” to hold tight to our agendas and ambitions, to stay “in control” and keep control, above all things. We have aspirations to fulfill, places to go and things to do; but not so much depths to plumb, nor commitments to refresh, nor connections to deepen. We feel we have to maintain our critical distance, critical not so much in the sense of “evaluative” but critical in the sense of negating and distancing: What we don’t care for. What we don’t want to commit to or get “tied up” with. The metaphorical “rooms” we won’t enter without first scouting out the “exit” signs.
Despite our often smug penchant for keeping “distance,” or perhaps because of it, I am simply enthralled with Guadalupe. I cherish it because in that place, people search for things they long for but can’t find by themselves, miracles couched in the (for us, more believable) fervent hope of finding meaning, healing and forgiveness, goals with which most of us worldly strivers can just barely identify.
In saying this, I do not underestimate the limitations and unfortunate consequences of intense emotional commitment – the legions of “rooting interests” and “self-fulfilling prophecies” that hold our cognitive and evaluative sensibilities captive, driving us towards unformed goals without a map and largely without heeding street signs or traffic lights. The lines that separate devotion and addiction can be thin indeed; our devotions can certainly portend the “neglect of many things” in ways that are not in anyone’s interests.
Moreover, collectively, we already “make up” too much of our worldviews, failing to do our homework or hold each other accountable to the testimony of our still-formidable senses. The “Alt-facts” that now punctuate so many discussions are by no means the restrictive domain of the US president and his sycophants.
And yet there are dimensions of devotion that can enrich and sustain all of our “9-5” contributions, dimensions that can inject both passion and humility into what are largely, for most of us, relatively tepid and episodic commitments to the social and political challenges beyond the walls of our offices and domiciles.
It’s not my place to judge the commitments of others. That people don’t put time and energy into things I care about doesn’t in any way imply that there aren’t other areas in people’s lives for which devotion is still relevant and active. Folks raise children and take care of sick relatives. They cultivate beautiful gardens and tutor struggling students. They hold bake sales for fire departments and clear polluted streams. They invest what they can, even as much as they can, without completely abandoning other commitments, other necessities. Indeed, when we are immersed in our ways of devotion, it becomes easier to forget to feed and bathe the children!
Still there is something about being around those people in Guadalupe — something about that energy and resolve — that raises for me legitimate questions regarding the depth and sufficiency of my own commitments. In this world where the buttons are literally flying off our carefully tailored clothes, is the energy and skill that we now dispense sufficient to sew them back? Do we actually have enough devotion to the world we claim we are endeavoring to fix?
As some of you know, there is a section on the BBC website called “50 Reasons to love the world.” Of course, as the BBC would readily admit and regularly makes plain in part through its “Planet Earth” series, there are many more reasons to love this planet. Love it, not play deadly games on it, not scheme around its obstacles, not sap its shrinking abundance and wonder. Real care. Real devotion.
In listening to the academics at Mora and to diplomats at OPANAL and back home at the UN –all clearly worthy of respect – it still isn’t clear if we will be able to summon what we need and all that we need to navigate our current threats. We have information; we have skill; we have our careers and communities of practice. But are we devoted enough? Is there some helpful dimension for those of us working in the realm of “sustainable peace” equivalent to the loving energy expended by the pilgrims and miracle-seekers of Guadalupe, the ones who travel miles to the Basilica in wheelchairs — even on their knees — and then, when they finally reach their destination, wish only that they had traveled miles more?
In recent months, I have talked often about the need for us all to find another gear. I think we have to find a deeper gear as well, one that is simultaneously learned and devoted, competent and passionate. Despite what seems like so many appearances to the contrary, such synergies are both within our grasp and in our collective interest. In these unsettled times and their seemingly endless demands, devotion is one key for turning episodic interests into faithful and loving pursuits of the “sustaining peace” for which so many around this planet are currently longing.