Carolyn Woo

Carolyn Woo

While reading a United Nations Development Program report on violence in Latin America, I encountered the term “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 a 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 the 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 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency estimates that 1 in 10 athletes who compete internationally engage in doping. The International Center for Academic Integrity says that of over 70,000 undergraduate students surveyed, 39 percent reported cheating on a test and 62 percent reported cheating on a written assignment.

In a 2003 survey of 2.6 million job applicants, reported The CPA Journal, 44 percent indicated they lied on work experience and 41 percent said they lied on education. Another 23 percent said they falsified their credentials.

What we may embrace as our light may actually lead us into darkness and away from what is good.

At one point in my career, about 20 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. 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, 12 and 9, at the time.

There was no hesitation. My answer tumbled out. My aspirations for them were simple: that they would know their gifts and thank God for these blessings; that they would work hard to hone their gifts into useful instruments; that they would use these to serve, rather than to take advantage of, others.

Weeks later I was able to place myself in God’s hands and respond to an invitation that made little practical sense but felt completely right.

What do we want? By what do we set our course? For whom or what do we live? To whom do we surrender? These are sacred questions. Our answers lead us to God or to idols.

In “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” 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. Scripture reminds us that we cannot serve two masters. We must choose.


Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.