Don’t Look Away: Thoughts on an Imbalanced World
Six years old. A commercial interrupts my television program.
Bloated babies with flies in their eyes. A Christian man with a white beard.
I get up from where I am sitting, cross-legged, on the living room carpet and move toward the television to push one of the other little rectangular buttons. I am going to push the one next to the “11″ where I hope to find an episode of the Golden Girls.
“What are you doing?” the voice is my sister’s. She is 14 years old.
“Changing the channel. I can’t watch this one again – it depresses me.”
“Sit back down.”
“I don’t want to watch the dying babies!”
“Do you think they want to die?” she asks. “Do you think they wish they could just flip to another station? One where they weren’t starving to death?”
I am silent. I sit back down and watch, mortified. Horrified, even.
Not at their taut, round belles or little crusty tears. Horrified at my insensitivity. At the thought that my older sister might think that I have no heart. That she might be right.
I study the long commercial. Memorize the dirty mud-puddle water supplies. Stare at the wailing mothers holding little baby corpses.
And never turn the channel on another Save the Children campaign again.
Years later, I find myself in Kolkata holding a woman named Paloo. She has an incurable case of scabies. She’s blind. She has tuberculosis.
When left to herself, she rocks back and forth moaning a little bit – or chattering. Mother Teresa’s army of volunteers rarely touches her for fear of contracting scabies.
When you do touch her to tie her green hospital gown or guide her into the showering room, dead eyes light up and she grabs your arm so you won’t leave her.
I am humming John Denver’s “Country Roads” quietly to myself when Paloo joins me. She doesn’t know the words. We don’t speak the same language. I can’t carry a tune to save my life. But we sing together – a warbling hum.
Everyday in this place I am watching people die. Bodies like skeletons with beautiful faces. This singing – this joyful noise – is new to me and gut wrenching and so I sit down on Paloo’s cot and put my hand on her back.
I set down my things and take a break from cleaning shit and piss off of plastic mats that serve as mattresses. I sit down with Paloo and wrap my arms around her from behind and sing louder. I am amazed and astounded by how many John Denver songs I know. Amazed and astounded by the strength left in her hands as she grips my arms while we rock back and forth.
Paloo does not die during my six months in Kolkata. But she does learn the chorus to Country Roads.
Kolkata was a mind fuck of grand proportions because I had to stand in front of people who suffered because of my excess. I had to stand and acknowledge my participation in an imbalanced global economy. I had to stand and watch people die and wrap them in sheets and take them to the crematorium and watch their ashes float up into a polluted sky. And the entire time, all I could think about was how it was my fault.
The Christians there told me that the meek shall inherit the earth. As if this should make me feel better.
Claire looked into a patient’s eyes the day before she died and said, “I see Jesus.” Later that night at the mo-mo cart I told my friend, “There must be something wrong with me, Peter, because all I see is fucking suffering.”
Going to work in Mother Teresa’s homes seemed like the only thing to do at the time in my life when I did it. Watching the television commercials, I realized, was not enough. Recycling was not enough. Sending money was not enough. Carrying privileged Western white guilt in the gut of me day in and day out was not enough.
I had to go and touch it. I had to go and see it. For reasons I could never fully articulate, I had to go and face it.
In the end, going to Kolkata was not enough either. And I’m not sure what is enough. I still don’t change the channel. I still watch the commercials and viral youtube videos all the way through and read the news dutifully, noting every new horror and atrocity.
When the oil spill hit the news, I regarded it with peripheral interest. An oil spill. That’s a finite thing – a tanker sprung a leak maybe. Let’s get this thing cleaned up.
Then I learned more. Ok, so maybe it’s gushing out of the ocean but we’ll stop it right? We can do that, right? We have contingency plans for shit like this… right?
Everyone knows the rest of the story but no one knows the ending. It’s been over 40 days now of oil gushing into the ocean and – to be totally honest – I’m terrified.
There are days and weeks when I struggle to tap into the Hope that I know must exist and this has been one of those weeks.
But I’m still looking, watching and listening. I’m still present.
And, like that six-year-old me in front of the television, I am still occasionally horrified at myself.