What do we have to learn?

What we can and must learn from indigenous cultures:
Western culture in general and American culture specifically defines personal success in terms of a person’s educational achievements, career identity/level of income and material possessions.  Self-esteem is highly valued as a mark of a successful person.  The danger for individuals and for society arises when people cannot live up to these expectations of success and they receive the message from their culture that there is no place for them in society.   Because we live in an individualistic society, there is little room for community and so people are pushed out to the margins.  Many living in isolation in the margins act out in dangerous and unhealthy ways that impact much more than the individual; they have grave impacts on society as a whole. 
Around the globe, there are small and large pockets of communities where indigenous cultures still thrive.  Often these cultures are viewed as primitive, uneducated, unsophisticated, ignorant, or even savage.  Are there important lessons we can we learn from these ancient ways, these resisters of “modern progress”?   Could they hold the answers to some of our modern problems that seem to be plaguing our own country? 
In most non-Western cultures the definitions and measurements of success are completely different.  First and foremost is the nearly complete absence of any senses of personal achievement or personal failure.  Fr. William F. Mullan, MM, a Maryknoll priest who served in Guatemala writes of a Mayan family living in a tin-roofed hut with a dirt floor.  Their living situation would prompt any of us living in the U.S. to craft a list of “needs” such as a floor, more rooms, electricity, glass windows, plumbing, furniture, and on and on.  According to Fr. William and as so often reported by missioners overseas, the family seemed to be very happy and content.  When returning home for regular visits, Fr. William visits family and friends and notes that the children each have their own inventory of toys and yet in the Mayan family, there was not one thing the children could call his or her own, not a single toy.  But what he did see is that from a Mayan perspective, the greatest success a man and woman can achieve is to form a family, to be able to clothe and feed them, and teach them to be good people who respect God, nature, and the community.
Even though there are almost no true indigenous people remaining in El Salvador, remnants of the original culture are still evident and in how we find a different perspective on the individual versus community.  A Maryknoll Lay Missioner was conducting a workshop on “self-esteem,” something of great value in Western culture.  She attempted to demonstrate an example of that value with the statement, “I can make decisions on my own.”  The students could not accept that statement as a positive attribute.  Their logic?  Decisions are based on talking and consulting with family and friends.  Only people without family and friends would have to make decisions on their own! 
Another Maryknoll Lay Missioner reflects on his experience with the Chilean indigenous.  People in Venezuela often greet others with the expression, “Perdone me malo.”  It means forgive me for my poverty, or for the little that I have.  Not a self-deprecating expression but rather one of humility.  In our North American culture we are so programmed to think that we are the center of the universe and in control of our own destiny and if we make a mistake, it’s the end of the world. 
Some final words on community come from Fr. John Conway, a Maryknoll missioner in Tanzania just before Christmas as he stood before a crèche in his parish church in Musoma.  A girl of 5 years stood beside him and said, “Padre, something is wrong with this picture!”  Fr. looked at the nativity scene but didn’t see anything wrong with it: Mary, Joseph and Jesus were all there as usual.  Finally he asked the little girl what was wrong.  She replied, “No one is holding the child!”  In Tanzania, children are always held or strapped to the backs of their mothers or siblings.  They are never simply looked at!
We have friends (some people I know on Facebook have several hundred) and family but we don’t always see them as necessary to our survival.  We delude ourselves into thinking that we have to make it on our own and that we can make it on our own.  To our own peril we even believe that we will not be accepted in our society if we have not made it on our own. 
Stories excerpted from What They Taught Us – How Maryknoll Missioners Were Evangelized by the Poor (Orbis Books).  For more information on this book or to obtain a copy, please contact Kris East @ (510) 276-5021 or keast@maryknoll.org  Ask me about our Immersion Program to Guatemala and Bolivia…discover for yourself what the poor have to teach us!