Conversations on the Good Life
Joel Thompson SJ is a Guyanese Jesuit scholastic, based at St Ignatius in the Central Rupununi region of Guyana, in South America. He writes about how we can learn from the Indigenous people of the Amazon about Caring for Creation and living the Good Life.
As part of the preparation for the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, the Church in Guyana has been carrying out a series of consultations within communities across the country. The Synod’s theme is New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology. The purpose of the synodal process of consultation is to generate an awareness of the crisis of the Amazon forest and its inhabitants. It hopes to bring forward new ways of the Church and community working together in a time of rapid environmental and social change.
Within the Central Rupununi where I live, we have been listening to the hopes, dreams and struggles of people in the sixteen villages which we serve. These communities are predominantly indigenous and the villages are made up of people from two of the nine indigenous nations in Guyana: the Macushi and the Wapichan. The synod provides an opportunity for a rich dialogue with indigenous peoples. This is something that Pope Francis has been calling for. He urges us to listen to them and their wisdom concerning how to ‘live well’ in harmony with nature, with God and with each other. Dialogue with indigenous communities helps to explore anti-consumerist ways of living. The fact that the Amazon rainforest is the largest standing rainforest, is not the product of mere chance. The indigenous people of the Amazon, through cultural, spiritual and social practices, intentionally decided to live in harmony with their environment and recognized their complete dependence on it. Care and gratitude naturally followed from an appreciation of God’s creation.
In order to live an integrated life which cares for creation, a new ‘mind set’ or ecological imagination is needed. An integral ecology does not conceive of the ‘good life in narrow material or economic terms but recognizes that the ‘good life’ is ultimately about good relationships. The indigenous worldview is based on a communal sense of self; a sense of belonging to something greater than individual pursuits. During our community consultations in the Rupununi, one of the first questions we asked was ‘What is a good life for you?’ I can ask it again here to you: What do you think a good life consists of?
Unsurprisingly, most of the dimensions of a good life for people were spoken of in communal terms. Having good relationships within the family, participating in village ‘self-help’ and spending time in nature to hunt, farm, fish, or relax were key parts of ‘good living’. No one shared that they wanted to be rich, to accumulate many possessions, or have a large bank account and car. When we hear ‘self-help’, we might think of external books that tell individuals how they should improve some aspect of their life through will-power, determination and practice. For indigenous Macushi and Wapichan communities in Guyana, the term means working together to achieve goals without outside (non-indigenous) help. People come together to do self-help for building homes, cleaning farms and buildings or conducting repairs. There is a sense of conviviality as everyone (men, women, and children) participates in some form or another whether through direct labour or providing food and moral support. The tradition of ‘self-help’ is evident in the indigenous community of St. Ignatius where I live. St. Ignatius is hosting a pre-synodal assembly for around 140 people from across Guyana later this month. The church community is currently constructing a Benab (an indigenous structure where community meetings and cultural events are held) for the event. Members of the community have taken on the task of going into the forest to cut and fetch large pieces of wood, and are coming out daily to work without the expectation of a wage. The Jesuit community provides a meal and some materials but the design and organization of the ‘work force’ and the building is done by the community. This contrasts with urban centres where the process for erecting a building is to find a contractor, raise funds and hire external workers. Community building literally builds community and is a good way to build relations with each other since at the end of the day everyone has a sense of ownership, or rather, belonging.
Reflecting on what constitutes a good life helps us to see where our values lie. The conversations with indigenous communities reveal a life where the quality of relationships is valued more than quantity of things (material possessions). Is this something which we can all learn from?