Monday, January 14, 2013

Apathy in the Face of Poverty

Here's another oldie.  It still feels relevant and I still come up against these same issues.  I wrote this piece long before we adopted our children.  Since that time we have traveled even more extensively in Asia, seen more poverty and sadness, and I still don't have answers.  Even, so, I want to continue questioning.  Every day.  If we don't question our thoughts and behaviors and what we do and do not do, then there is no moving forward.  There is no beautiful answer.

On a not-so-long-ago vacation in Malaysia, I came face to face with my apathy and it scared me.  On a stale and humid afternoon after the better part of the day spent wandering the vibrant streets of Kuala Lumpur, my boyfriend and I returned to our decrepit guest house.  There was an older Indian woman lying in our passageway.  Her nose was bloodied, and through her sari I could see her ribs, barely rising and falling: lying there in the stifling heat, her bones fused with the concrete.
At first I thought she was related to the Indians who owned the liquor shop next door, but if so, they were steadfastly ignoring her.  Possibly her husband had beaten her and thrown her out on the street for some small act of independence.  Perhaps she was homeless.
We slept through the hot hours of the afternoon, then went out for the evening.  When we returned, she was in exactly the same position as eight hours hence.  Save for the slight raling of her ribs, she could have been dead.  We went to the liquor store and asked if anyone knew who she was.  They shrugged, pretending not to understand.  We bought some isotonic water for her and put it within reach were she ever to regain consciousness.  Otherwise we did nothing to help her.

Honestly, I had no idea what to do.  When I travel in poor countries, I stop looking after awhile.  I have to.  I toss a coin here or there, snub sympathetically when I accidentally catch an eye, but I keep myself focused on the prettiness and the charm of whatever country I happen to be in.  Most people who have traveled will tell the same story.  When faced with the insurmountability of poverty and despair, you either become Mother Theresa or you guiltily continue your travels with compassion in your heart and a sense of sad futility.
At home it is easier.  Madison is politically active.  People believe changes are possible.  When I am not confronted with poverty, stench, and people living in cardboard shacks along the road, I can believe in possibilities.  Here I am not alarmed into impotence by the impossibility of tending to so much tragedy.
But if I start by helping one woman, how long will it take to get to the billion or so others who are crying out for food, protection, a life without violence or poverty?  Mahatma Gandhi said, “What you do may seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
The woman in the sari was gone the next morning - dead, to a hospital, dragged by her hair down the filthy street, or in a clean bed, bathed and forgiven by her husband, the blood gently wiped away.  Who knows.  Who cares.  I want to.

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