Thursday, May 28, 2009

Serving is Not Without a Sense of Helplessness

From my journal: Saturday, May23, 2009

Note: The comments and descriptions here are both my initial reactions and my thoughts shortly afterwords. Please try to understand that I am human, like everyone else.

On my way into Georgetown this weekend, a man sat directly next to me on the speed boat. He was very ill and it took me by surprise that he was allowed to make passage with the rest of us. He was the last person on and was a miner coming from the interior. As we pulled away from the warf I put my iPod on and began listening to "Marketplace," a podcast which is a half hour program about the US and international economies. It was a strange experience in that I was connecting with the outside world via an MP3 player/icon of affluence, while watching this man suffer an excruciating boat ride under the siege of some affliction I couldn't identify. He had no outward signs of sickness, yet he looked and sounded horribly ill.

He moaned and groaned and made it clear that he was in pure pain. It was difficult to shut out. I was shocked that I was tyring to shut it out. What could I do? I'm no doctor. I don't even know what this poor man is suffering from. Dengue? Typhoid? Malaria? HIV/AIDS?

Did I drown my fear and sorrow for this man in something so commonplace as the economic forecasts of the nation I left? How Western of me, how tourist of me. But, I had to rationalize that I could not help this man as a doctor because I am no doctor. My skills as a teacher may have helped him in the past, if I had had the opportunity to educate him in time to prevent this illness from occurring. But even that has no guarantee. For the most part, disease is blind to those it infects. It has no ethnic or socio-economic preferences. It just does its job, like a postal worker who delivers your bills.

I considered offering him the Advil in my pack. Then I stopped and thought, "You are ridiculous. It is so rude to even entertain that idea." How could I even begin to know/understand this man's pain let alone give him some drug as a way to mask the larger issue. Shit, which larger issue? There are thousands. What's more was that if I did offer him pain killers, would that set a precedent? Would he ask for something else? I probably make less than he does as a miner (they average $2,500 US a month. Peace Corps gives me $200 US a month).

All the while listening to the state of the Detroit job market and how the global economy is still in shambles. It was surreal to be hearing something so familiar as my standard public radio program at the same time as watching something so foreign as someone's true suffering. He nearly threw up on my pack and I almost encouraged it as if it would justify my helplessness and aloof behavior.

Who was this miner with audible ailments? The "Oh, Gods" and "Jesuses" racing out of his mouth every time our boat slammed into a new wave, driving his body to stand up in discomfort and shame for making everyone else uncomfortable. It tore me apart. It tore my perfectly healthy, strong, educated, privileged, and able body apart inside and I felt guilty and dirty for feeling sorry for this man.

To me, this is a situation of extreme cross cultural exchange. Akin to oil and water, the experience cannot be put into a set of logical explanations for how the world works; it just does like everything else. All I can do is sit and watch a man suffer, see a dog get torn apart by another one, hear a drunk husband beat his wife to utter silence. I have no true place here. I am an alien, a foreigner, a white privileged man who's every move is tracked by others. Even those decisions I make which I perceive to be benevolent or good natured are not immune to scrutiny, judgement, or an overall sense that I am indoctrinating these people. The same exact things occur in the United States of America. Supposedly the richest and most powerful nation on this planet.


Elana Grace said...

This is definitely your most poignant blog to date...and one that strikes me in a deep place. I am currently at work, in the midst of countless Starbucks-toting suits...and your words are resonating in my brain, bouncing off its walls and rolling around to no conclusion. But I want to understand, I want to see the world through eyes other than my narrow Western ones. Thank you for your willingness to breakthrough the bounds we have created to shut out the rest of the planet...we need more people like you who are willing to live on the "other side"...and realize that in the eyes of the rest of the world, it is us who reside apart from everyone else, not the other way around.

Anastasia McGee said...

Chris - I think the fact that you can acknowledge these feelings and put them into words on your blog is a sign that you really are doing something to make the world a better place. Most of us in the US have no concept of what daily life is like in the poorer neighborhoods of our own cities, let alone in poorer countries. Having compassion is where change truly begins.

Parisa said...

My PBnB,
I know this is late to the game and I'm pretty much restating something already said but I'm so proud of you. I often tell myself in situations where I feel helpless, the first step is awareness, at least that's what one of my wise (anthro studying) friends once brought to my attention. Go Anthropology! You are making Anthro majors proud everywhere!