Short Story: True Poverty (Part II)

This is the second part of a two-part short story.  To read part I, please click here.


“I’ve mentioned several times so far the idea of symptom truths and causal truths.  You know now that when I mean causal, I am referring to God, and this makes you uncomfortable.”


Taking this statement to be a question, I quickly replied, “Yes, that is true.  I can’t see God and you can’t prove empirically that He exists.  So obviously your ‘truths’ are different from mine.”


“True, very true.  Even if I know empirically that He exists – and I do – my proofs would not necessarily sway you.  Not at this point anyway.  But by introducing you to the concept of symptom truth versus causal truth, I hope to show you the way to knowledge of truthful assumptions versus the erroneous.  And to do so, let us go back to your branch of study.”


The suggestion was excellent to me, though I was not very encouraged by this white-haired man’s grasp of economics or public policy, and I readily agreed.  “Very well sir, go ahead.”


He looked up slightly, as if gathering his thoughts, then began carefully and deliberately, “You agreed earlier that the economic health of a group of people is based on how the government treats them and where they happen to live – in other words the historical circumstances into which they were born.  Of course you believe this only as a general rule, and that makes sense.”  He looked at me for concurrence.


I nodded to him to continue and he went on, “So if I were to ask you who is to blame for the rampant poverty in a region – Oaxaca, Mexico for example (since that is the place which you brought up in your lecture today) – you would be inclined to say that most of it could be explained by lack of government investment, rampant local corruption, inability to sustain an education system, deficient infrastructure, soaring crime rates and perhaps high taxes and overregulation.  Correct?”


Maybe I had guessed wrong as to this man’s level of understanding of economics and politics?  He seemed to have a decent grasp of the underlying assumptions off of which I work.  So I agreed, “Yes sir.  I would start with those as hypotheses which could explain the pitiable conditions and I would fully expect to be proven correct by any study along those lines.  Within reason that is, since I have always found there to be small anomalies within any population which could never be replicated in any other nor prepared for beforehand.”


“Quite right,” he said as he continued and attempted to further clarify, “However your study would center on these external factors almost entirely, right?”


“Well, not entirely.  There may be some aspects of psychology and anthropology which may have to be added into the study.  For example, I might look at the Oaxacan people’s appreciation of being Mexican nationals versus merely Oaxacan, or their voting habits and civil stability to also understand factors in why their poverty is so endemic.  There also might be geographic concerns revolving around accessibility to arable land, valuable resources or trade routes.”  I could have continued but I was more interested in where he was heading with his thoughts, so I trailed off.


“Perfect!” He exclaimed in a way that caught me off-guard.  I had expected him to be puzzled or at the very least less enthusiastic about his chances of teaching me something from my chosen area of expertise.  “You seem a very thorough and thoughtful researcher.”


His compliment disarmed me slightly, “Thank you very much sir.”


“No doubt all of these avenues of study have been conducted at one time or another by researchers such as yourself – though perhaps not with the same meticulousness as you would imbue.  And they, no doubt, have come to the same conclusions that you have yourself said that you would expect:  id est poverty’s main causative factors are the same factors which continue it.”  He looked at me to confirm his statement, which I eagerly gave with a small step forward and an encouraging nod, though my arms were still crossed in a less-inviting gesture.


The older man continued thoughtfully and calculatingly again by slowing his words and drawing me toward him mentally in the same way he had physically a moment before.  “Thinking critically now my lad:  is it logically possible … or even probable … that the same factors serve as causation and continuation in a situation of abject poverty as is seen in Oaxaca?”


“Did I not just answer that question when you asked it a moment ago?” I responded rather disappointedly, thinking that the conversation was spinning slightly back circularly to the beginning.


“No, you did not.  Though it might be viewed as a nuance of little consequence, it is one that is of inestimable value.  The difference is one that requires you to divorce yourself from your study and examine it from your heart – philosophically and then finally spiritually.  I’ll rephrase the question:  Is it possible for stagnation within a group to occur because a never-ending cycle of repeatable offenses stand in the way of what you would term ‘progress?’”


Now I was having a difficult time keeping up with him and his ‘nuance.’  “I’m not certain now if I entirely understand you, sir.  My initial thought is that, yes, the same factors which are observable as symptoms of the condition are also the factors which maintain that position.  However I am getting the impression that you see things differently and even question if that causation-condition is possible.”


“I don’t question it, I completely refute it,” came his straightforward answer.


This shook me slightly and made me immediately respond, “Surely you are not saying that any internal force can break a cycle which has held unabated for the length of human historical records?  In Oaxaca, to continue with our example, I would assume that there are written records intimating the economic conditions going back to at least the Spanish conquest.  I would doubt that any large-scale change has ever occurred over that time in the level of lifestyle that the indigenous peoples have endured.  Would you presume to say then that they might be able to break a few hundred – and likely thousands – years’ record of poverty based on unobservable – even unprecedented –factors?  I mentioned that I believed that there were asterisks and provisos regarding the factors in the economic situation for each individual group of people.  But I have never – ever – seen an example of a population with a superhuman ability to, if I may borrow an antiquated and physically impossible phrase, ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.’”  My mind flashed throughout these verbalized thoughts and I lost myself momentarily in the parsing of word upon word.  It was rather soothing to finish my thought and retreat back mentally to the physical beauty of the garden.  I had edged myself slightly back a pace or two during my spoken words and I now was standing back under the shadow – what little shadow there was in the darkness of the rainclouds – of my tree.  I lowered and shook my head rather resignedly to the idea that this conversation had indeed been a waste of time and I re-crossed my previously gesticulating arms and retreated back into myself.


The softness of his next words caught me off-guard and reconnected us as he spoke them, “Nay my lad, there are no internal factors which can reverse the record of poverty and suffering.  You and I both agree on that.  Where we differ on is in the idea of causation.  You study the factors which continue the horrendous plight of the people and make the assumption that because they correlate to continuation and because the continuation spirals ever downward without outside interference, that those same factors are also the exhibio exibio of the trouble.”


Seeing my slightly raised, incredulous eyebrow, he continued, “This is an entirely reasonable assumption for you to make when you start from a philosophical position which glorifies the physical to the level, or to the detriment, of the spiritual.  You see, your first thought if you were to study the Oaxacan plight would be either, ‘What are their current conditions?’ Or, ‘What has happened to the Oaxacans in the past?’  True knowledge, deeper knowledge …” he purposefully waited for eye contact before continuing, “… a thorough knowledge begins with, ‘What is their position in relation to the holy?’”


A deeply incredulous half-smile began as I shot a look at the old man that spoke volumes more than my words, “I don’t think so, sir.”  I shook my head vigorously as I continued, “No …”  still shaking my head while looking at the ground and pacing back and forth, I repeated, “No … I do not see how God factors into a discussion of economics, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, biology, zoology or … phraseology!  Where does the physical ever come into contact with the spiritual … or vice versa for that matter?  And where can it be observed, studied or internalized?”  When I finished speaking I stopped pacing, stood still with my hands on my hips, breathed heavily and stared with accusatory eyes at this trouble-making man.  All I had wanted to do was sit still and enjoy the beauty of the garden and now I was left to deal with these asinine questions!


He looked back at me calmly, his hazel eyes twinkling with kindness.  Then he carefully and purposefully moved about a foot to his left.  As he did so, the doodle he had made in the mud earlier became visible.  It was a small cross with the words below it reading, “The Word became flesh.”  I took an unconscious step forward.  While my head swirled with partial rage at the insolence of the man for dredging up such horribly inconsequential spiritual questions regarding a purely physical problem, some other long-dormant part of me – weakly at first, but ever louder – repeated, “The Word became flesh.”  The concept seemed interesting and promising enough to partially diffuse my anger and it somewhat won me over.  I took a slight step forward and found myself almost in the reeds rimming the side of the creek as I dejectedly and wearily whispered, “What does that – ‘The Word became flesh’ – mean?”  It was as if, for a moment, I left my body and floating somewhere a few feet above, I looked down at myself and shrieked, “What are you doing asking that question and encouraging the man?”  But outwardly I was calm and a little frightened.


“It means that, by simply acknowledging the words ‘The Word became flesh’, you have taken the most fundamental step in sinking into the depths of understanding.  It means that you have realized, even if for only a moment, that the questions do not begin and end with the physical.  It means that the long-avoided question which your heart of hearts has been pondering is finally being posed.  It means … quite simply … that the Almighty God is both the beginning of all things physical and the ending of all questions that arise from it and that He momentarily deigned to put onto His immortality the cloak of mortality.”


This kind of talk was normally silliness in my estimation, only spoken by mystics and charlatans.  But something in our conversation made me want – even need – to dig deeper.  I attempted to respond, but found my throat dry and only a hoarse strain came out, “Wha -?”


My new teacher seemed to know what was going through my head and he continued softly without waiting on my voice to return, “You see my lad that you can spend a lifetime in the infinite loop of argumentum ad nauseam, a lifetime asking, investigating and answering questions which never dig deeper than the symptoms of truth.  It is as if a man buys a piece of land that is known to hold gold beneath the surface and instead of boring into the rock to uncover its riches spends his time simply rearranging the topsoil.”


I began to find my voice again and asked in a crude, hoarse whisper, “But why would someone – someone like me – neglect a question which leads deeper?”  The “someone like me” part of the sentence crumbling from a proud height of learning to a humble request for pardon in a neglect of this ‘deeper’ truth.


“Ahh!  You have hit on the heart of the issue and indeed the reason for the entire arc of our conversation.  When we first met I might have begun with normal conversational introductions, but you would have thought me a bore and even more of an intrusion on your solitude than you did.  Or I might have even started with the precept of God’s primacy in all things, but you would have dismissed me outright.  In fact, I daresay you would have closed your mind entirely if I had mentioned God before I did in our conversation.  The fact is that when you are only familiar with the surface truths of the physical you must have your heart cultivated and prepared for such an important thing as the spiritual depths of truth.  Simply put, you neglected the question because you were not ready to hear the answer.


“A man –a physical, corporeal man – comes into contact with the spiritual only when that man sees that the source of the symptom truths around him come from something that is nakedly unfathomable to him.  To accept that there are questions with answers that are beyond your understanding from a physical, mental or emotional standpoint is to realize that what we see and observe everyday is caused by something of much more consequence than the symptoms themselves.


“Going back to Oaxaca – and to all suffering peoples of the world for that matter – they suffer not only because of the symptomatic failures of their governments, or crime and lack of education, they suffer because of the root cause of distance from God.  It is a basis which reveals the true poverty of man regardless of the GDP of his nation, region or city … in fact, it is a root which reveals the true poverty of man on the individual level whether a beggar or a billionaire.  The deepest truth of all is that God, in His infinite holiness, righteousness and glory, is the only One who is entirely sufficient unto Himself, lacking in nothing.  We may attempt to apply economic principles to the matter of physical poverty, and we may even succeed in slightly improving our plight, but the scale of a lifestyle change from Oaxaca to Monaco is the equivalent of an inch traveled on a trip from earth to the most distant galaxy when we compare our repulsive unrighteousness to His glory.  That, my lad, is the clarity of purest truth that filters up from the depths of the deepest ocean chasm and explains the symptoms of tumult of wave and current on the surface of the sea.  That, my lad is the most beautiful truth that can be learned and acknowledged.


“So, when I said at the beginning that what you were pondering was not true … I meant it unabashedly and unequivocally.  In fact, do you remember your last words to your students before you dismissed them and came out to the garden?”


His soliloquy had left me breathless and stunned and it took a moment for me to re-collect my thoughts to realize that a question had been posed which I should answer.  “I believe that I said something like, ‘Your greatest hope of understanding inequality from region to region is in understanding the economic and political hurdles those polities have overcome.  It is not borne from anything supernatural – a modern battle between gods and titans with puny man in the middle.  It is a definable and observable series of explainable events.  And that’s what I want to see in your papers next week.’”


The old man nodded solemnly, “Aye, that is what you said and that is what I pronounced as untrue when we first met.  You have taught the symptoms but you have misunderstood – even run from – the cause and when you rightfully asked the question about where the spiritual touches the physical I revealed the answer that has always been written.  That in the man of Jesus, the spiritual condescended to walk amongst the physical – to touch it, to handle it, to feel its pain and know its woes firsthand … but then to leave a little imprint of the divine, a glistening jewel of the holy, a treasure that leads only to glory.  That treasure explains not only the reason for the physical poverty in all nations, whether Oaxaca or Benin or Bangladesh, but also the more important spiritual needs that affect them along with ‘rich’ places such as California, Luxembourg and Singapore alike.


“The simple fact is that the physical poverty of us all is the product, the symptom, of our distance from God.  Do not get me wrong, I am absolutely not agreeing with the heretics who proclaim that the way to wealth is through the command of God!  Certainly not!  The very thought is repugnant.  But I am saying that the poverty found in Oaxaca is caused by millennia of the people there distancing themselves from God.  And any so-called abundance found in New York City, London, Paris or Tokyo is equally pitiful when compared to the glory of the Father.  The way to this wealth, the depths of unfathomable riches, is through drawing near to the One who first drew near to us by taking on flesh.  We receive the unlimited wealth of His righteousness when our hand finally and forever clasps firmly into the inviting, outstretched hand of the Almighty.”


My heart was pounding as he spoke these words and I was caught between two minds.


The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14, NIV

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