On The Suffering of Others

There has been another terrible “natural” disaster in Haiti. My stomach dropped as I looked through the pictures in the New York Times. And then I got ready to go back to my work. I thought for a second, “What can I do for these people who hurt, who have a little boy just like mine who cries and is hurt?” I thought for a second about sending a donation online, but wondered what my $25 dollars would do. It was more about easing my conscience than the suffering of the people in Haiti. I mean, let’s be real here, things in Haiti were horrendous and horrible and breathtakingly hard and sad before this damn earthquake. I suppose when something is on the front page of the newspaper we just think about it a little more, for a second or two, or maybe a little throughout the day, before we go back to our own lives that are filled with things like getting our house clean, keeping up with email and studying for our general exams.

Sometimes I tell my partner that I think we talk about the suffering in the world and how awful it is and how inadequate our response to it is more just to somehow tell ourselves that we are doing something by being aware of it – aware of our great indulgence living in a house bigger than we need, getting organic fruit at Whole Foods for our little one and spending as much on surgery for our kitty Grace than many families in the world make in the whole year. As if we are somehow one tiny ethical step ahead of those who do all of this without thinking or reflection or people who don’t feel as bad as we do about it.

I often tell myself there is no good answer to this, but I wonder in the back of my mind if there really is a good answer and I just don’t really want to do it. I mean, it seems like the good answer would be to live with what we need – decent food, decent shelter, warmth, the transportation we need to get to our decent jobs – and then spend the rest of our time and money working to change the savage injustices that we see on the front page of the newspapers, or, too often, as a side story in the back of a newspaper or a completely unknown story never told. I guess that would be the good answer. But instead, we resign ourselves (sophisticated resignation, as Forrest Church says) to the fact that we just sort of don’t really want to do that and even though such dedication is needed to help address the profound and deep suffering in our world, we would rather live a more comfortable life in our nice warm house, washed in the privileged of where we were born.

And so it goes. Another earthquake. More pictures of misery, and hurt – not far-away hurt of other people that must somehow not be like our own deep hurt – but real hurt that is just as deep and just as acute and terrible as I would feel if it was my sweet boy sick, without shelter, without the food he needs. I remember when it first occurred to me that the pictures of the children with the swollen bellies were not just images flashed on the screen to get us to send money, but they were actually like me – with real lives and real suffering just like my own. It is so easy to see the suffering of others and take a step away from it and get back to what we feel like we must do – live our lives, do the dishes, pick the boy up from daycare – because really – I mean what else could be expected of us? I mean, we can’t GIVE UP OUR LIFE for all these injustices, right? And although I have this funny relationship with Christianity, and pretty much don’t think of it as my spiritual home, I remember the idea of giving up our life to the call that Jesus made to be with the poor and oppressed and give our enemies the shirt off our back and the idea of taking up our own cross and it speaks to me. Not a call to attend another social action committee meeting, but the call to live a radical life of giving and love when it is really really hard – not part-time, not on the weekends, but a life that gets at the very heart of what I know I say I want – a just world.

But instead I write a blog post on it and then get back to writing my paper which is due January 28th.

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6 Responses to On The Suffering of Others

  1. jim gish says:

    I feel a little inauthentic writing this because most of my life has been obsession over small, neurotic self absorptions, but I do understand that as John Donne said,”No man is an island.” I am not sure that there is a neat or workable answer short of being St. Francis and living among the poor and living a life of deprivation in order to completely identify with the plight of the poor and marginalized. I am not willing to do that, and most people are not. Your cat ministry and your “dayton boys” ministry puts you far ahead of most people in sacrifice, but that is also not an answer. Then it is like a scoreboard where someone gives themselves a higher rating and feels good about that, and the people in Haiti and Darfur continue to suffer. I think of missionaries who go there and die and wonder if in that last second, did they say “This was all worth it. I made a difference.”
    I don’t know. In the end, it comes down to what you call “sophisticated resignation” and a series of personal rationales about why we do not do more.
    Well, about I have done is muddied the waters, but I wanted to comment because I think it is difficult and universal delimma.

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