Media CenterCarolyn Woo’s CNS Column – Aspirations Re-examined

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While reading a United Nations Development Program report on violence in Latin America, I encountered the concept "aspirational crimes" used to explain the tragic acceleration in crimes on and by young people. The term refers to crimes motivated by money and the irresistible desire for consumption. Partly this is to support one's family in situations where poverty is intolerable. But a large part is for the "cool" gadgets, shoes, clothes, electronics, etc. that swell a young man's swagger and elevate his position within the gang, mark his achievement and anesthetize his misery for the moment. 

The term is chilling to me because "aspiration" is such a positive word, embraced for its energy and rewards. It guides what we do, how we work, what we dream about and how we look at ourselves. It is compass, creed, mirror and destination. Yet this report showed how aspiration can wreak such havoc, totally consuming self and diminishing the others in our lives. While the violence in Latin America is an unmatched tragedy, we must not deny the potential dark side of our aspirations. These may not be murderous or criminal, but depending on what they are and how we approach them, they can certainly be corrosive of our soul and integrity.

A recent report by World Anti-Doping Agency estimates that one in ten athletes who compete internationally engage in doping. Posted on the website of the International Center for Academic Integrity are the survey results of over 70,000 undergraduate students. Thirty-nine percent reported cheating on a test and 62% on a written assignment. With respect to “resumes,” several studies are listed on to illustrate the extent of cheating and misrepresentation. For example, in a 2003 survey of 2.6 million job applicants by the CPA Journal, 44% indicated they lied on work experience and 41% on education. Twenty-three percent falsified their credentials. So what we may embrace as our light may actually lead us into darkness, and away from what is good about us.

At one point in my career about twenty years ago, I was at a fork and had to discern my aspirations. I was about to attend a three-week leadership workshop on a university campus and welcomed the time away for thinking. I was, however, unable to come to any conclusions at the end the three weeks. Failing to reach an answer, I reframed my question. Instead of what I wanted for myself, I asked what I wanted for our two sons, twelve and nine years of age at that time. There was no hesitancy at all: my answer tumbled out of me. My aspirations for them were three simple points: to (1) know their gifts and thank God for these blessings, (2) work hard to hone their gifts into useful instruments, and (3) use these to serve rather than to take advantage of or belittle others. Weeks later, I was able to place myself in God's hands and responded to an invitation that made little practical sense, but felt completely right.

What we want, by what we set our course, for whom or what we live, and to whom we surrender ourselves, these are sacred questions. Our answers lead us to God or to idols. In Laudato Si', Pope Francis points out how our responses have too often focused on the self, sought through the consumption of things. By this collective orientation, we turned our backs on God and brought forth the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Scriptures remind us that we cannot serve two masters. We must choose: For things? For God? 

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service. You can follow Dr. Woo on Twitter at @WooCRS.

Read Dr. Woo’s previous columns


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