Are we making a difference at the UN? A Discussion with AI Youth Reps and Intern

April 22, 2018

(Fr. Bob Dueweke met with the Youth Reps and the intern to evaluate this year’s work at the UN. The following reflection is based on that discussion.)

Yesterday I met with Emma and Anastassiya, Youth Representatives from Lehigh University, and Jack, Augustinian intern from Chicago, to review the year’s program and experience at the United Nations. Important points for reflection emerged during our lively conversation at a diner near the university.

Measuring Progress

Last week Lehigh University had an all-day conference on the Sustainable Development Goal #6 at the United Nations. This SDG #6 focuses on water and sanitation. Various panels were held throughout the day in which experts shared their ideas and experiences related to water. I asked the question whether anything is accomplished at these commission meetings and conference side events at the UN. The response from all was “probably not.” So, why are we at the UN if we feel we accomplish nothing? Perhaps we have to grapple with the meaning and role of the term “accomplishment.”

The idea of “accomplishing something” is another way of saying we have “concrete results,” which is appropriate for the university STEM course environment. There we observe something new emerges as a result of expenditure in time, resource, and money. We make task lists to measure “what we accomplish” and what psychic energy is required to accomplish whatever the goal might be. We set goals and measure for ourselves whether we have reached it as we would in physical exercise. But there are caveats.­­

There is validity in applying a “scientific” approach to what we do. Yet, setting goals and fretting over concrete results can become warped when they are an obsession and the only criteria for measuring accomplishment or progress, and, worse still, for calculating our sense of self-worth. I am by what I produce. The assumption that goal-setting and result finding are the only metrics for evaluation eliminate other options, perspectives, and questions found in understanding ­reality. Such assumptions are especially limited when considering the longer viewpoint in time with issues concerning social transformation.

Chaos as measurement

The commissions and departments at the United Nations certainly use goal-setting and they measure progress in terms of results. But these so-called results are often short-term. Presenting a side event on one of the SDGs is a concrete result. Panelists give papers and organizations publish manuals. When we consider the longer viewpoint in terms of decades or generations, we might doubt the lasting effect of the short-term “concrete result.”

One might sense instability and chaos in what one wants to achieve. Failure to achieve anything concrete engenders drowning oneself in activity in order to numb the mind of asking and answering further questions. In some manner, we, as NGOs, must squarely face the instability of not accomplishing anything. This is an integral part of progress and requires that we reflect on why we are doing what we are doing. This tension of instability and the feeling of wasting time belongs more to a spiritual dimension of work than to a STEM environment. Yet we also know about scientists in quantum mechanics who will avert to a spiritual kind of language to explain subatomic observations.

Void as spiritual dimension

It is important to define what is meant by the term spiritual. The notion of spiritual is larger than the meaning of a spirituality as a way of life that belongs to a specific religious tradition like Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. Rather, the term spiritual is much larger and includes the dimensions of spirit that artists like El Greco or Mozart tap into to give expression to that desire of reaching out for the more. The sense of the spiritual I have in mind here is that sense expressed by the United Nation’s second Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in his design of the “Meditation Room” at the United Nations. He wanted a place of silence that points to “the more” of the imagination and yearning of the spirit within the deliberations and discussions at the UN.

The Meditation Room is highly symbolic; it is also a symbol highly forgotten by both staff and visitors to the UN. In an interview with the journalist Pauline Frederick, Hammarskjöld worked with artists to convey a sense of silence and stillness that “should be the center of the United Nations.” He said “We want to bring back, in this room, the stillness which we have lost in our streets, and in our conference rooms, and to bring it back in a setting in which no noise would impinge on our imagination.” When the room was opened in 1957, Dag Hammarskjöld gave this description to visitors (full text): “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence . . . . There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.

For an outside observer, silence and stillness appear to be motions of “doing nothing” or “wasting time.” Nothing is “produced” and results cannot be measured. So, what “fills the void” when nothing is produced or considered “successful”? How does one tap into a spiritual dimension to respond to the inner emptiness of feeling like a failure when the rest of the world values the worth of something or someone by the measure of its product? This uncomfortable feeling afflicts everyone who is committed to social transformation for making the world a better place. St. Augustine writes much on the notion of the “inner self” as interiority, the place where “God is closer to me than the blood is to my bones.” This is the point of departure for exterior activity. Perhaps we can find solace from the teachings of interiority from those social prophets who have gone before us, such as Augustine, Teilhard and Merton.

Voices of social change: Teilhard and Merton

The Jesuit paleontologist/geologist Teilhard de Chardin continues to make an impact on our understanding of social change and instability in light of the long evolutionary process:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time

It is important to trust the process. At times, the process can involve the repetition of a pattern of experience. A typical pattern is a student attending classes in a routine manner over several years with the hope of gaining insights that are integral to learning. Something new evolves from within the student’s pattern of experience. The new is contingent on the pattern or repetition of experience. This pattern is observable in the sciences like chemistry and biology. The Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan calls this process emergent probability.

We see how value plays an integral role in the commitment to the pattern of experience in the writings of the social critic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In a letter to the New York social activist Jim Forest, Merton responds to his friend’s frustration in the work of social justice, especially in the movement for nuclear disarmament. Merton writes:

Do not depend on the hopes of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea [of failure and dashed hopes] you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, . . . it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

What I find intriguing about Merton, and good advice for NGOs, is to concentrate on the “results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” This is the work of the spiritual dimension of the human being. When we feel like we are wasting our time and going nowhere with our projects, we must think of the “value” and the “truth of the work itself.” At the United Nations, we embrace and project the value of communion, unity, equality, democracy, dialogue, and participation. These are core values. Theologically, we call them Eucharistic values, that is, the possibility worth struggling for that the human race can gather around one table. No matter how small the so-called accomplishment. These values deliberately contradict the dominant narrative that war is the only option for life on Earth. This option views the other as a potential enemy, one who cannot be trusted, defenses must be built, and pre-emptive strikes are normative procedures for maintaining peace. In this narrative, peace is nothing more than a temporary cessation of war. War is anti-Eucharist; war is a lie.

Evaluating work at the UN: successful or fruitful?

The so-called Just War theory is obsolete. St. Augustine adapted this theory from St. Ambrose with the intention of preventing war. But times have changed, especially in the post-Hiroshima era when nations have the capacity to destroy earth itself. When mechanisms for conflict resolution are in place, and where conflicting parties are invited around the UN table, the option for war must be a decision of last resort and have exhausted all channels of diplomacy.

No doubt, the UN system needs reform if it is to be effective and credible. Wrongs must be made right. Transparency and gender equality at all levels of decision making must become normative at the UN. We can ask “Is the world better with or without the UN?” If the system is broken, which it is, then, it must undergo serious reform. We must remember that the purpose for the UN is to prevent war. However, we do need to ask questions like when “When do we wage war?” and, “How will civilians, the poor and marginated be protected?” Again, Dag Hammarskjöld reminds us that the “UN was not created to lead mankind to heaven, but to save it from hell.” Trusting in the value and the “truth of the work itself” is trusting in that we can live together without destroying ourselves. That trust is something that cannot be measured, calculated, or produced in a concrete way. Yet, it can seem our work is a failure rather than a success.

In evaluating our working at the UN, with its countless meetings and conferences, we need to reframe the experience, of which frustration and darkness are common, with a new terminology. Changing words can change our perception and provide new insights. As one friend mentioned, “it is not about being successful, but being fruitful.” The fruitfulness of an endeavor is buried in trusting the process as a whole, with all the moments of instability, confusion, frustration, chaos, lack of success or fulfillment one might experience along the way. Components of such fruitfulness imply dialogue, discernment, exchange of ideas and feedback, not positive or negative feedback, but accurate feedback. There is a sense of growth. As a person of faith, one contemplates “Have I grown in faith and love? Do I have hope, or do I live under a cloud of despair?” Is my work at the UN fruitful? I can take this idea a step further: “Have I planted seeds of peace? Do I give them time to germinate in the dark earth? Am I patient with doing nothing?” St. Ignatius of Loyola describes this type of person as a contemplative-in-action.

Planting the seeds of peace. This is what we do as contemplatives-in-action. We are to help create a new human consciousness, a new global soul that embraces all forms of life and inanimate matter into a cosmic whole. We are tasked to create not robots of a fantasy Westworld, but a new flesh-and-blood ultra-human, a term used by the scientist and Franciscan sister Ilia Delio (see her blog “Becoming Ultra Human. An Exploration of God, Sex, and the Future of Everything” at http://www.becomingultrahuman.com/blog-1/

Obviously, as students at the university, we need to obey our professors and design programs with goals and deadlines and projected outcomes; the school requires it and we should not rebel. Nevertheless, we need to maintain a sense of balance with the unexpected and be resilient with the cultural dictates of the unsuccessful. Social transformation and change happen at another level of ultra human consciousness that cannot be measured, but the experience can be one of fruitfulness and trust in the process of the long term. We live the value of communion and the “truth of the work itself.” It is a question of how we understand being contemplatives-in-action. We need to recover this dimension at the UN.

We should go ahead and fill in the blanks under “Expected Outcomes.” Remember there is another blank in the deeper part of our soul where everything gyrates around a center-point of stillness and silence. When one sits in quiet as a pattern of experience, something stirs deep. From within that inner void emerges “UNexpected outcomes.”

And that is a high probability.

Robert Dueweke, OSA

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