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The Gift of Crisis

[Crisis] can mean the instant of choice, that moment when people become aware of their self-imposed cages and of the possibility of a different life—Ivan Illich

We live in alarming times. Our political system is paralyzed, our fellow citizens are polarized, the global economy is lurching from crisis to crisis, and we’re sorely taxing this planet’s carrying capacity. There’s reason for grief here, for the people hurt and divided by the chaos, perhaps also (selfishly) for the relatively safe and comfortable life that we thought was guaranteed to us. But there is something to celebrate as well.

When our systems are functioning smoothly there is great pressure for us to conform to their expectations: to equate meaningful work with a well-paid job, to equate safety with a huge military, to devote our lives to amassing money and security for our families. It is very hard to resist this pressure, to work for love whether or not that work comes with a title and a salary, to make peace with our national and personal neighbors instead of trying to scare them away, to give our children time, attention, values and skills instead of more and more money and stuff.

When our systems fail it’s easier to see through the false promises of security through amassing weapons, through amassing money or through conforming and being socially acceptable. It’s easier—not easy, but easier—to let go of what we believe other people expect of us and wrestle with the basic questions ourselves: What work is worth doing? Who is my neighbor? How, then, shall we live?

This isn’t to say that we should go about fostering crises in the hopes of getting our neighbors to stop and think about their lives. There are crises enough already. We are called, not to pull the existing systems down, but to “create a new society within the shell of the old”. That was how Peter Maurin described the Catholic Worker’s goal in opening houses of hospitality, forming farming communities, learning basic skills and welcoming strangers. Each of us may be called to a different task in the creation of a new society, but the first steps are the same for all of us: Take crisis as an opportunity for awareness. Realize what habits and assumptions have enslaved us. Listen for God’s call in our hearts. Go forward in Christ’s freedom.

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