It’s a curious fact of human nature that to comprehend the suffering of many, you must see it through the eyes of the few.
Remember the Vietnam War picture of the naked child fleeing napalm?
Remember the Syrian war picture of the small boy — dirty, bloody and vacant-eyed — in the back of an ambulance?
Remember the Dust Bowl picture of the defeated woman with her equally defeated children?
Remember the recent picture of humans, mostly women and children, held within chain link fences under border bridges?
The human and natural crises we face in our grossly imperfect world are almost too much to bear. We see the pictures, watch the videos and read the news reports, but we do it through guarded eyes and cautiously closed hearts, lest the despair and hopelessness become overwhelming. “What can I do,” we ask ourselves, “in the face of such ugliness, anger and random suffering? And if the final answer is nothing, then why am I even here?”
In the 60’s, President Kennedy threw down a gauntlet to a young generation. During his administration, the Peace Corps was formed giving young people the opportunity to serve the world by improving just one small part of it, in whatever backroad hamlet they were assigned to dig wells, or increase literacy, or build roads. Many responded.
One of those who answered the call was my wife, who, before the ink dried on her university diploma, was using her animal science degree to help pig farmers improve their herds on small farms in the southern Philippines.
Just like you, through the years she has been moved to compassion for those who suffer from the epic catastrophes that afflict mankind. But here in southern Idaho, there are few opportunities to help the victims of war, disease and mass migration across the world.
My wife and I have talked about this often. Should we have steered our lives in a different direction, so that when disasters strike our help would be more than distant and abstract?
Through my career in journalism, I’ve known people who chose that road. They were career nomads, who lived through one major disaster only to move onto the next. I admired them but felt sorry for them. Few had lasting families. Most developed a sort of proud PTSD, and, when they weren’t feeling lonely, exhibited a vague disdain for those who were unwilling to sacrifice themselves on the altar of never-ending human misery.
That was not the life we chose for ourselves. We stayed home and focused our efforts on raising our family.
But we’ve always tried to stay open to community service because even though you and I will not be on the beaches helping victims of the next Asian tsunami, there are people right here at home who need help.
Well…sure, you say, but it’s not the same. Because you’re reasonably convinced that by comparison, everything’s actually pretty great around here.
Forgive me, but you’re wrong. Everything’s not pretty great around here, no matter where your ‘here’ is. There are people near you who are hungry or are dying of drugs or loneliness or illness or abuse.
There are people who have been victims of human cruelty for so long they can’t conceive of any other way to live.
They may not live on your street, but they live in your town. Not seeing them is no excuse for believing they’re not there.
A phone call to a local clinic, or halfway house, or shelter, or food bank, or job training program might inspire you to find a way to help occasionally, or regularly.
Do you have time? Of course you don’t. But perhaps you could make time. It doesn’t take much to change the world, but it does take something.
Then at least, when you’re seeing pictures from the latest catastrophe, you won’t feel so overwhelmed.
You can’t do everything, but at least you’ll be doing something to help the struggling human family, knowing that there are billions like you around the world—overworked and tired, but still doing what they can. And who knows—if everybody did something, maybe we’d accomplish everything.