Tuesday, December 29, 2009
looking at the one
Haregewoin Teferra, from the book There Is No Me Without You
I am beginning to wake up.
I wish I could say that, because God so loved the world, I have too. I wish I could say that statistics about genocide and child soldiers and poverty and hunger have motivated me to make real changes in my life -- to sacrificially love the suffering world. Sure, I've shed a tear, prayed some prayers, even sent monthly checks. I've talked about these things at dinner parties like a good socially-conscious Christian should. But mostly I have felt numb and powerless, overwhelmed by numbers I can't understand and concepts I have never experienced. In the end, these problems have been too big and too far removed from my comfortable suburban life to move me to authentic compassion.
Even our decision to adopt from Ethiopia hasn't felt like a reaction to the suffering world, necessarily, but more like a simple yielding to the way in which God has called us to build our family. We don't view it as rescuing a suffering orphan, but rather bringing home our son or daughter and fulfilling God's promise to care for him or her.
As part of our adoption preparation, I am reading a book called There Is No Me Without You, the story of an Ethiopian woman who accidentally starts an orphanage in her home. Much of the book centers on the problem of AIDS in Ethiopia and other developing countries, and the tidal wave of orphans it has created as an entire generation disappears from the disease. I have heard all this before. I have read the statistics, heard Bono's speeches, and seen pictures from friends' mission trips. So why was I completely shocked by this book? Why did I feel like I was hearing all of this for the first time? What made me suddenly care?
Mother Teresa called it "looking at the one." According to sociological research, when human beings are faced with massive problems on a global scale they experience what researcher Dr. Paul Slovic calls psychic numbing. They don't care, and they don't act - perhaps because they don't feel that they can make any difference. When faced with the problems of a single individual, humans are empathetic, compassionate, and willing to give sacrificially to the cause.
One of the children in this book is my child. AIDS is killing the generation that should have fed, clothed, and educated my child, and all this time I have not cared. We have not cared. Miracle-working drugs have made HIV manageable and AIDS almost invisible in America and that is good enough for us. Drug patents, international trade policy, and illogical, self-serving rhetoric are keeping Americans safe, healthy, and rich while children in Africa wake up between two dead parents. Am I over-stating? Over-simplifying?
I don't know. All I know is that an Ethiopian child I've never met is already teaching me, waking me up, shaking my shoulders, and asking me to move.