Saturday, July 16, 2011

Concern File

What is important?

It depends on where you sit and what moment you ask the question.

If you are struggling with something--and who isn't struggling with something; I used to believe everyone else was happy and confident, but now that I'm older and wiser, I know that anxiety is pretty much everyone's little companion--it's hard for the worry du jour not to become the world. The front page of the paper is just that: paper, thin, and replaced in twenty-four hours by another sheet with grisly color photos taken in some other world. One so terrible it can't be believed.

The most powerful biological urge in the undamaged psyche is the care of one's offspring: it is this way for you, for me, and for the milk cow whose calf is taken from her and for whom the anguish is vocal, and complete. It is the same for all parents.

The Somali people are stumbling toward Dadaab, Kenya, on journeys of more than a month, to reach what is now the world's largest refugee camp. They are trying to escape drought-induced starvation, and their children are falling by the wayside. Can you imagine this? Your small child, malnourished, thirsty, forced to walk day after day until he can go no farther, and he drops. The reversal of nature's order turns the universe on its side, and everything falls off into clattering ruin.

The magnitude, and the raw agony, of such a situation makes the privileged feel paralyzed, at least for a moment. A little while ago, it was Japan: and we couldn't wrap our brains around that, either. Although there were a lot of benefit concerts to aid that ravaged country. I haven't heard much about Japan recently. I also haven't heard about many charity art auctions for Somalia. Maybe it's too big. It's been going on for too long. It's too far away.

First their animals starved. You can do an image search--"Somalia drought" is all you need to type in, and 628,000 results later you are drowning in the horror. Small children whose bloated bellies over spindly legs and empty eyes define the word "wrong." The adults who know what's coming for them, unstoppable, and they show it in fearful faces. Goats and camels, skeletons with hair, some still walking, most only a few minutes away from the final groan, the drop to the knees that will be their last. The people, the people, ground down to bare life. Nothing more.

I will not point out the awful disparity between our lives, even those Americans who are struggling in this economy that assures so much to so few, and tells the rest to go to hell, and people who are dying by the million because they have no water and no food. It's a cliche to mention that I just bought whatever I felt like buying (watermelon, bread, strawberries, olives) at the grocery store, and still I have worries that keep me awake some nights. What is wrong with us? Do we not do anything because we don't care? Or do we not care because we can't do anything?

It's a messed-up world where those who have too much can't even reach those who have nothing. And are about to fall over the edge.

Yesterday at the farmer's market (the line for felafel sandwiches, $8 each, was about twenty-five people long), I ran into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in a year or so. A brilliant writer. She smiled and told me I looked wonderful: "It's so nice to see you. How are you?" I told the truth: really well. But the question returned caused a strange look to pass over her face, even though she said, "I'm pretty well." Maybe it was the half-beat pause before the adjective. "Pretty well?" I asked. "But not great, right?" All of a sudden her visage collapsed, the happy-to-see-you mask. "My daughter's just been diagnosed with cancer."

The universe is tilting for her, and things are beginning to slide to one side, precedent to falling off. We would do anything for our children. It is an imperative written into our cells. Their survival is our concern. The only one that matters.


Shybiker said...

The disparity in fortune among the world's inhabitants doesn't surprise me; the indifference among the privileged toward that disparity does. How can we ignore the suffering of millions?

You accurately point to the illogical focus many have on their anxiety de jour. I once worked for a man who had great wealth and, accordingly, had no real problems in his life. Yet he would spend an entire day feeling bad because, when they repaired his Mercedes sedan, they left a tiny scratch on the leather seat. He let that ruin his day. I watched him, as a young person with bigger struggles in my life, and shook my head.

After my own wrestles with real tragedy, I vowed never to lose perspective that way. Now, a minor setback is disregarded by me as such and not milked for self-pity.

Childless, I can't comment on your main point but I respect how evolutionary and emotional forces could lead parents like you to elevate their offspring's welfare to the highest level. Part of my family was torn apart forty years ago when my young cousin died in a swimming pool: I saw adults unable to handle that situation.

My condolences to your friend for her child's illness.

brittany said...

It's so eerie to read this because just this last week, I've been mulling over this exact same question. In my notebook, I wrote WHAT IS IMPORTANT? because I thought writing it down that way would make it somehow more solvable. It hasn't, but I appreciate that I'm not the only person/writer attempting to figure this out in a similar manner.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Yes, SB, this came out of my ongoing struggle--usually suppressed, alas--with trying to comprehend how people whose compassion is an integral aspect of our selfhood also find it waylaid or turned off. Denial? Overload?

I have never had to deal with anything at the level that you have, but I too am trying to get a grip. Maybe that is one gift of coming to an age where I realize life is well and truly finite: there's not necessarily a whole lot of time left. Do I want to spend some of the precious remainder getting bent out of shape because the hem fell out of my skirt--or even that losses big and small visit all our days, eventually.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Brittany, it sounds like both of us came to the same moment: when the friction between personal life and being a part of humanity became too grating. It hurts.

When one person starts thinking, you never know where it can end. And when that person is a thoughtful writer, like you, change begins.

Anonymous said...

Bonjour Melissa,
C'est toujours un véritable plaisir que de lire vos articles ! Votre compassion vous honore. Réfléchir aux conditions de vie difficiles d'autrui est un pas dans la bonne direction pour changer notre monde égoïste. Enfin, l'été de 2011 passe très vite, comme notre vie. Il faut bien profiter de chaque instant, soit pour voyager ou méditer.
Bonne journée ! Pierre Simard

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you so much, Pierre. I truly hope it is true, as you say, that thinking & speaking of the welfare of others is one small step toward changing our outlook, and thus our world. Or so I pray.

Let's all stand up. There is too much misery out there, and it *can* be changed. We must insist. Or we lose our humanity, while others lose their lives.