Living in The Places that Scare You

For the record, I love the Guatemalan culture.

I live here. I adore traveling around this breathtakingly beautiful country. It is colorful, fascinating, complicated. I love the Spanish language, the lush gardens, the mammoth volcanoes, the diverse, kindhearted people.

I do not particularly like the city. The crime, poverty, ignorance and repression in Guate are not so lovable. The climate and the kind people and the scenery are wonderful, but let’s be honest; this place is far from peaceful.

This is not a criticism of Guatemalan people. There’s no use in the blame game. I realize that the USA and its supposedly superior government has had a lot to do with the long-term instability in Central America.

The US State Department tells us, “Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America.  In 2009, approximately 25 murders a week were reported in Guatemala City alone.  While the vast majority of murders do not involve foreigners, the sheer volume of activity means that local officials, who are inexperienced and underpaid, are unable to cope with the problem.  Rule of law is lacking as the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient.  Well-armed criminals know there is little chance they will be caught or punished.”

The fact is, I love living in Guatemala and am not leaving anytime soon.

I am a compassionate warrior. As Pema Chödrön writes in The Places that Scare You,

“The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.”

I like to deceive myself a little bit. I like to think I am safe. I like to feel somewhat in control of my life. Though I am all for free will, I know that control is an illusion. Anything can happen at any time, anywhere.

Rather than closing down, Pema suggests we open to vulnerability; from this comes lovingkindness, compassion, joy.

I opened to vulnerability when I moved here from Austin in August 2009. I was scared at first. I didn’t know what to expect. I learned about the realities of life here, the crime rate, the instability, all the stories. I have written about this before. (See: Land of Eternal Contradiction.)

Machismo has both overt and subtle effects on society here in Guatemala. Por ejemplo: when I got into a fender bender, me and my five Gringo witnesses agreed that it was the other driver’s fault; he maintained that I was in the wrong. The man’s attitude was so abrasive and superior and he was lying. We all knew it and there was nothing we could do about it.

In the end, I said, “Whatever. Mala onda.” Bad karma for him.

It’s the same way with serious crimes including murder. Something like 2% of the crimes are solved here. The police force is young, inexperienced, overwhelmed and therefore almost completely ineffectual. My only interaction with them occurred late one night when I was pulled over and randomly searched. Luckily, I was with a friend and the cop doing the frisking was female. We didn’t even have to give them money.

One of the root problems is that nothing is really illegal in Guate. There is no fairness, a fierce cycle of poverty that feeds into the sky high crime rates. Faux law enforcement. Devaluation of human life. Even my high school students openly discuss the rampant corruption of the government here. They’ve been aware of it since they were little. You don’t trust the police. They, among many others, are the bad guys. You just do not call the police.

The truth is, I live in a place that is not safe. I live in a place that scares me.

I have dealt with it pretty well thus far, I think. Like most middle to upper class people living here (or anyplace), I live in a bubble that gives the illusion of some semblance of safety.

I have not been robbed or had a gun pulled on me, though I know lots of people who have been victims of theft, foreigners and locals alike. Petty crime is one thing. You give up your cell phone, camera, wallet, whatever. Fine. However, I have too many Guatemalan friends and students whose family members have been killed in cold blood: kidnapped, murdered, shot, tortured.

I happen to have watched Manos de Madre, a 30-minute documentary about the poverty, suffering and crime among the communities surrounding the Guatemala City garbage dump, five times this past week, as I showed it to each of my creative writing classes.

What can be done? Write. Reflect. Practice yoga and meditate. Let go of anger.  Transform negative emotions into fodder for the eternal present-moment practice.

Violence — and non-violence — begins at the individual level. It begins, as all human enterprises do, inside the mind.

However, one cannot instantly eliminate all negative and violent thoughts at their root simply by wishing to do so. The next best thing is to start eliminating violent actions. At the gross level, this would mean ceasing with physical aggression, angry shouting, gratuitous road rage. At a more subtle level? Cut down on arguments, mean-spirited gossip, use of profanity, and condescending glares.

In the wise words of Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti, “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim, or a Christian, or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition it breeds violence. He who seeks to understand violence belongs to no country, no religion, no political party, no particular system. What matters to him is the complete understanding of humanity.”

I’d like to be post-culture, post-religion, post-violence.

I am not there yet. We are not there yet. I get upset, angry and agitated at times. It is not my intention to badmouth Guatemala (or anyone) or to rant insensitively. I write to understand, to find meaning in things, events, experiences, ideas. I am, after all, an idealist. I strive to be a realist.

I strive to live up to this definition of the yogi by B.K.S. Iyengar: “The yogi uses all his resources—physical, economic, mental or moral—to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. He shares his strength with the weak until they become strong. He shares his courage with those that are timid until they become brave by his example. He denies the maxim of the ‘survival of the fittest’, but makes the weak strong enough to survive. He becomes a shelter to one and all.”

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
~ Martin Luther King Jr.

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