When my family moved to Brazil, I remember driving out from the airport into Rio for the first time. The mountains that rise over the water are covered with shacks, mountainsides etched with steel and tin roofs and plaster and the large tottering masses of slums. The shacks are like colonies pinned up over the beachfront, prisons suspended over the city. They are always there, carved into the background of Rio, living out the poverty and suffering of this place.
I have never forgotten Rio’s bay, but not for the shacks. I know that there are shacks all over the world, just as there are also poor and gangs and police and amputees and street-children beyond Rio. But across from the shacks, there is a statue of Christ the Redeemer on the peak of a mountain. The monument is enormous, and Christ appears like a giant frozen over the city, arms spread wide, looking out over Rio. He is there in light gray stone, something like the color of hope, over all of the shacks, the traffic, the urban mess.
Since Brazil, I have always been conscious of the suffering that is out there. I remember driving through a torn-apart neighborhood in Brazil, and my friend said, “You want to see real poverty, you don’t have to go to Africa. It’s right here.” In a way, we all live in an Africa of our own, an Africa as metaphor. But still, it is the image of that statue, the beauty in that statue, rising up over Rio, in which I find my belief.
I remember reading the German philosopher Schopenhauer who wrote that “The world is suffering.” Many call Schopenhauer a pessimist for this, but he didn’t stop there. He moved on. He wrote about finding joy in music and poetry and art. He wrote about becoming more charitable and compassionate. Schopenhauer looked out into the reality of his world. He looked out into a world of death, poverty, limits. But he also showed us the art of becoming.
This is what I think of when I see the statue of Christ, arms opened, over Rio; and when I see the scarred faces of the poor on the streets of Rio who must look up to the shacks and the statue like twin gods of suffering and hope. I am not yet religious, but I have always seen the beauty in that statue, this image of Christ, the redeemer, erected right in the density of such poverty and sorrow: the way that he is a kind of painting, a poetic expression of what we are trying to become.
I believe that the world is suffering. I believe that there are shacks and statues and Africas. But most of all, I believe that we are always becoming. I believe that the bay at Rio is a kind of metaphor for what we must live, reaching out of crime and violence and poverty to an image of beauty that binds us all.
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