India / Thoughts

What a week

Madurai
A few sweet little girls I met down in Madurai back in 2007.

What a week.

I haven’t had much time to spend at the computer this last week and perhaps that was for the best.

Instead of obsessively hitting refresh on the BBC homepage (because they upload news from our side of the world faster than the New York Times), instead of trying to keep up on the wave of protests and tear gas and plumes of black smoke and looting and destruction and violence consuming Embassies and Consulates and even school, (as if kids have anything to do with the messes adults make of religion and politics) instead of thinking about the sad madness of it all, I threw myself into unpacking and organizing 4,500 pounds of our belongings in under 48 hours.

When given the option of burying my feelings in manual labor and mind-numbing exhaustion, I’ll always take it.  My husband, he looks at the high walls that surround our Embassy compound and worries about ladders.  I choose instead to go for long 6am morning runs on 3 hours of sleep and obsess over how many loads of laundry I have left to do in order to remove all of the thousands of spilled silica beads from all of our clothes.  It’s easier.

But I can’t stop thinking completely and sometimes as I’m folding all of the damn, endless mounds of laundry, I can’t help but come back to one thought.

There is no excuse for violence, murder, hatred or setting schools on fire.  Hateful videos are no excuse, religion is no excuse, politics is no excuse.  Unemployment, dashed dreams, machismo is no excuse.

And yet, I think I can understand, on some level, why there are people in the world who murder and riot and loot and set schools on fire.

It isn’t about America, it isn’t even about Islam.  Those mobs who stole every last tennis shoe out of the Embassy school in Tunis?  I highly doubt they were thinking about the Prophet as they calculated how much money they could make off of all of the stolen goods from the school.

Instead, they were likely thinking about their families, about the fact that they might be able to walk in the door proudly that night, having brought home some extra cash.  They might have been thinking how cool it would be to actually own an iPad. They might have been thinking that it wasn’t fair that some kids get to attend elementary schools that look more like college campuses while their own children’s teachers may or may not show up to work on any given day.

There is a big difference between exercising free speech with a sign and a slogan and setting fire to a building.  The people who have been most violently storming Embassies and Consulates aren’t likely all that religious, most likely they are unemployed or marginally employed young men, powerless to improve their lot in life, angry that they have so little while others have so much.

So when I see the horrible news stories coming out of the Middle East, when I hear about the protests planned for New Delhi on Thursday, I don’t picture angry people, I picture hungry people.  People hungry for food or for work or for just the simple acknowledgement that their life matters.

Here in New Delhi even the people who have places to live and food to eat are hungry to get through even just one day without seeing something or experiencing something as sad or as tragic as the bands of skinny, homeless children roaming the streets, naked save for a few ratty t-shirts between them, or their family members dying in the halls of an overcrowded hospital because they couldn’t afford to bribe the doctor into caring for them.

Beyond the lush green lawns and the high walls of our compound here, life for too many people is still nasty, brutish and dismayingly short.

Rabid dogs kill children.  People inhale the dirtiest, most foul of fumes and drink dangerously dirty water.  Women are attacked for just trying to relieve themselves in the privacy of pre-dawn morning because they can’t afford to visit a public toilet.

While I sit in an air-conditioned room, typing away on my big computer and feeling sorry for myself because I still have 16 loads of laundry left to do, there are rickshaw pullers living across the city who are just hoping and praying to make it to their fortieth birthday.

Empathy is a skill most easily practiced when are own lives are not full of anxiety and stress.  We’re generally kinder people when we have full bellies and satisfying, or at least tiring work to distract us all day long from the things in our lives that we wish were different.  It’s hard to work up the energy to care about an insult from one person, half a world away, when one is truly happy and contented with one’s life.

But when one’s own right to survival is so precarious, it’s hard to feel respect towards anyone else’s.  When a person has nothing, it’s easier to justify stealing, burning and looting from those of us who have so much.  When one’s own future is so bleak that joining a mob or even a suicide mission seems like a reasonable idea, it’s unlikely such a person will have the wherewithal to imagine that anyone else deserves to live a better life than the one they have.

And when you’ve suffered enough and witnessed enough suffering, it’s probably difficult to imagine what a peaceful life could be like or why anyone would deserve to have one.

I don’t know much about Tunisia or Libya or any of the other 20-odd countries in which American Embassies and Consulates are under some level of threat.  I don’t know the Gini coefficient or the unemployment rates or how many people in those places go hungry each night or how many people are suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from shells dropping on their neighborhoods.

But I do know that those things matter.  That well-fed, well-educated people are generally happier, more peaceful people. And it matters that we know it matters and that we do something about it.

Because America isn’t just the home of hateful, horrible bigoted nut-jobs posting weird amateur videos to the internet.  It’s also the home of people who are grateful for what they have and who want for others to enjoy the same peace and access to education and healthcare and opportunity that so many of us enjoy.  This week reminds me of how much hard work there is left to do though to prove it.

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8 thoughts on “What a week

  1. I think you are the first person to touch on this. I agree whole-heartedly. Sadly, so many of the countries with hungry hurting people look away. The people running these countries are wealthy and live grand lives, it’s all about “me” here in Ethiopia and it was the same in the Philippines. There is no urgency to do better for their people because they personally are doing just fine. It’s very sad.

    • The whole wealth-poor gap overseas is always so staggering, especially after spending a few months in the US. People visiting the US are always shocked to find out that we have poor people and homeless people too but I’d venture to say that the difference between someone homeless in America and someone homeless in India is usually pretty major in terms of risk factors and access to services. Both are problems but overseas it’s on a whole different level.

  2. Very well said. Everyone (politicians, pundits) is so quick to play the blame game and opine on what caused this or how it could have been prevented or who dropped the ball and didn’t see it coming — but no one is really talking about the underlying problems at the root of it all: extreme poverty, lack of opportunity and many other social and economic issues pervading these countries.

    And I totally understand distracting oneself with work/working out!

    • thanks Natasha! You are right, no one talks about this stuff, it’s all about Islam vs the world which just doesn’t seem entirely accurate to me.

  3. Hey I’ve been wondering how you and Chris have been doing this past week, a tough one for all of us. Despite all the laundry to do, it’s great news that your HHE has arrived isn’t it? And I hope you’ve worked out viable transportation until you get your car so you can get out there and see all the good! Love the gorgeous faces in this photo 😉

    • Thanks Dee! Our HHE arriving is wonderful! Now, a week later, the place finally looks and feels like home and it’s so nice to know that I can just go out exploring without the nagging sense that I’ve got things left to do here at home. It was hell to put it all away so fast but it feels great now! 🙂

  4. Amen….

    I honestly thought Indonesia wasn’t going to be part of this. At first the government’s position was one of “we are better than this, we are real muslims” but not as the hubby calls me from the embassy asking me to avoid leaving the house today I can’t help but wonder why we ared subjecting the boys to this, again??? (red shirts in BKK in 2010…)

    On the bright side, yay for HHE business!

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