INTERNATIONAL DESK - The shower head fell into the bathtub again this morning. It always does when I try to adjust it. Not that it really matters — the hotel doesn't have any running water today anyway. Or electricity. The cleaner (if that is what you call the man who comes in twice a day to rearrange the dust) says both might be back on tomorrow, or the day after... or sometime.
The restaurant has run out of tea and coffee, and they can't remember when they last had sugar. The brewery hasn't got any bottles, so there is no beer either. This is, incidentally, the best hotel in town.
It is in the capital city of one of the poorer nations that we optimistically call "developing." Once, this country was a colony of a European power. It was considered to be fairly prosperous, although that prosperity did not significantly filter down to the native people. But on the whole they were content, and at least they lived without fear of famine or revolution.
Self-rule and independence were not a burning issue back then. There was a sort of understanding between the colonial authorities and the local leadership that eventually — in a hundred years-two hundred maybe — the country would be ready to govern itself.
Then came the Second World War, and in its aftermath colonialism became unfashionable. The European powers began to divest themselves of their overseas possessions.
And so this little place became a sovereign state. There were celebrations and dancing in the streets. At last, the people were told, they could breathe free. (Most weren't aware they hadn't been.) Centuries of humiliation and exploitation were behind them, it was explained. They had a smart new flag, a stirring new anthem and a seat in the United Nations.
Enthroned in the old governor's palace was their president — the national hero who had led them in their "fight for freedom." Unfortunately the national hero turned out to be a megalomaniac, an incompetent and a crook. His several years of misrule led the new nation to the brink of bankruptcy.
Eventually, his people tired of his empty promises and grandiose schemes, and they applauded when a coup d'etat sent him into exile. But a succession of military dictators drove things further and further down the road to ruin, until today, in the exaggerated words of a weary expatriate, "The place is becoming uninhabitable."
There are other nations like this. One can only look at them with compassion. They don't know what to do anymore. The exaltation over nationhood has long since given way to a grim struggle for survival. Successive leaders become more desperate, and consequently more repressive, causing the people to become ever more sullen and rebellious. The economy is a shambles, and the inflation rate has made the once proud new currency a joke. (The money to buy a refrigerator probably would weigh more than the appliance itself.)
In a desperate attempt to stave off disaster, the government is making yet another attempt to "reorganize society." The long-suffering people accept the new order — knowing that it probably won't work either. It may seem right for a while — but then, glib politicians always make it seem right. In the end, it always means more misery.
After a few years of living like this, a people's spirit breaks, and they begin not to care anymore. They watch listlessly as their homeland crumbles around them. The roads disintegrate, the only bridge over the river collapses, the post office roof caves in — but nobody does anything. Even the proud independence monument molders in its decrepit park, and the capital city slowly returns to being a village.
Some years ago, in a nation not unlike this one, I met a young student caught up in a revolutionary movement. He was angry, frank and candid. "Look at this mess," he said, driving through the ruins of the capital's main thoroughfare. "My nation has gone the wrong way," he went on passionately. "When we became independent, our leaders wanted no more of European ways. We were full of confidence. We were sure we knew the way to go. But we were stupid to try to be so independent — now we are worse off than ever. We need help — education, technology. We will never make it by ourselves."
"So why does your government refuse all offers of aid from outside?" 1 asked. His country had doggedly pursued a path of nonalignment, and totally rejected any aid that would carry the risk of being drawn into the orbit of a major power.
"Oh yes, all sorts of people want to help us," he said. "The communist countries offer their help. We know what that means. We'll end up indebted and obligated to them, and that will be the end of our way of life. There are too many strings attached to their aid... let them keep their tractors and military advisers."
"But it's the same with the Western powers," he continued. "Once we let them in, it's the end of independence. Look at... "He reeled off several of the more prosperous Third World nations. "They are colonies again!" He was right — they are, in effect, cultural colonies of the West. "We want what you have, but we don't want the way of life that goes with it. If we let you help us, we'll just be another market to be developed."
"That's why I am really a very harmless revolutionary," he added confidentially. "What's the point of trying to overthrow the government when you know you couldn't do any better? Why isn't there anyone who can help us without hurting us?" he almost cried with frustration.
This young man was honest enough to recognize his country's dismal lack of success, yet he was also realistic enough to admit that he didn't know what to do about it. He helped me to understand how educated people in the Third World think. It is something that many of us in the affluent First I World overlook.
In the "developed" world, we tend to evaluate the success or failure of a way of life by measuring material prosperity. We grade the nations of the world in terms of their per capita income, or their gross national product. We classify societies as being "have" or "have not," after we have carefully calculated the ratio of automobiles or television sets to the population.
Now, if these are indeed true values — or to put it another way — if man does indeed live by bread alone, then the Western, industrial, consumer-oriented way of life is by far the most successful and other people would do well to follow it.
After all, the First World — and to a large extent this goes for the European communist countries as well — has all but abolished famine and plague and the grinding, abject, hopeless poverty that one sees throughout much of Africa, and in certain areas of Asia and South America. The First World has nearly 100 percent literacy, low infant mortality, and the highest standard of living that the world has ever seen. Our societies aren't perfect. But compared to the squalor of much of the Third World, surely all can see that this must be the way to go — can't they?
It would be good for the so-called advanced nations to take a look at themselves — through the quiet, thoughtful eyes of educated people who live in less prosperous, but less selfishly oriented societies. People like this do not measure success solely in terms of material gain. They place a higher value on very real but intangible things, such as tradition, religion and family life. They value personal integrity, respect from their sons, chastity in their daughters, and modesty and fidelity in their wives.
How can they rate as successful a society that produces a 40 percent divorce rate, punk rock or a situation where one out of every four young children risks being sexually assaulted? What is the use of a modern city if it isn't safe to go out in? Ironically, it is the poorest countries in the world that have the lowest crime rate.
And what is so wonderful about living to a ripe old age, if nobody wants you?
My wife and I once visited a native village in the rain forests of Sarawak, where people lived a life hardly touched by civilization. When we arrived, the men were out on the steep mountain slopes cultivating their crops. The women were down at the river washing clothes. We could hear them chattering and singing as they pounded the laundry on the stones. The only people at home were some old men who were spending their time making roofing thatch for the long house, and old ladies who were baby-sitting.
The older children were attending a school that had recently been opened to serve the district. The Malaysian government has been trying hard to help these people into the 20th century. But these unsophisticated natives were not so sure they wanted that. They were quite happy in their jungle hideaway — working hard, demanding little, and — some might reason — "getting nowhere."
A few days later, we flew to Australia. At the airport I bought a newspaper. In it there was a story about an old lady who had been set up in a modern apartment by her family who no longer had room for her in their home. She had tripped over her vacuum cleaner, hit her head on the corner of her new color television set and lain on the floor unconscious for three days before anyone came looking for her.
At least the old people in the native village were living out their old age feeling useful and wanted. Who should be showing whom how to live? Is material prosperity the standard by which success should be judged, if that prosperity has to be achieved at such a terrible cost of other values?
"You call us savages because we cut the hand off a thief," a Saudi Arabian once told me, accusingly. "But in your society, you cut off the life of your old people when you don't want them around anymore."
Who then are the savages?
The industrialized, consumer-oriented way of life has come to be known as Westernization. Its fruits are causing many non-Western nations to consider carefully if it is, after all, the way they want to go. Some, like Burma, decided at the time of their independence that it would be better to be poor than to drown their traditional values in a flood of foreign aid.
Others, like Iran, slammed the doors in panic on Westernization — their leaders opting for the relative security of a "great leap backward." But even sophisticated technocracies like Japan are taking a hard look at the fruits of their commitment to materialism. Has the erosion of traditional values been worth it, they ask? Is there, perhaps, something inherently wrong with a way of living that, while producing great prosperity, quickly reduces the youths of a nation to those lowest common denominators of degeneracy — drugs, obscene music, gangs, dropouts and suicide?
It is a dilemma. On the one hand, the developed nations have made human existence more comfortable. But they have also made it more precarious and, some would say, 'less satisfying. Should we then be so sure that this is the best way for poor nations to improve themselves? Should we be so critical of those nations that resist Western ways? It is so easy to become exasperated at their couldn't — care-less approach to life. I do whenever the shower head falls in the bathtub. Many Westerners who try to help give up in despair. They berate the natives for their lack of "Protestant work ethic," fume because they prefer to live by the calendar rather than the clock, and are outraged by their customs and religions.
No thinking person could dispute that clean water, regular food, adequate shelter, sewers, electricity and education would improve the quality of their lives. But if it comes at the cost of broken family ties, lack of respect for parents, destruction of a community spirit and an increase in greed, competition, envy and crime, is it really progress?
The book of Proverbs twice records a saying of wise King Solomon of ancient Israel: "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Prov. 14:12, 16:25, Revised Authorized Version).
The way that seems right to this poor Third World country is surely killing it. It needs help, but from whom? From other people whose ways of life are also killing them? The young revolutionary was right — there is no nation in the world that knows a way that will bring peace and happiness. We have tried everything. Some ways seem more right than others for a time — but in the end, they all lead to death. Indeed, the way that seems right to the advanced nations has led to the very real possibility of total annihilation of all life.
There is a way that works, however. It combines not only the best of both worlds — material progress, while retaining those values that sustain true human happiness. It also adds a dimension totally missing in every culture. It is the way of life that Jesus Christ came to teach to those who would listen. Most didn't — his way of giving, of outgoing concern for others, of wholehearted obedience to God seemed wrong, and they rejected it and him.
The world — all of its components, First, Second, Third and Fourth — has continued to reject that way. Ii prefers to experiment with its own ways that seem right, and lead to death.
We can be thankful Jesus Christ will soon return to force all men to live his way. He will show them the way to life — as God intended it to be.