Monday, November 8, 2010

"a dangerous kind of unselfishness", or what i wouldn't give for a gingerbread latte right about now

in case i haven't told you personally what the last seven weeks of my life have been like, i will tell you this much: it's been a strange ride here in buenos aires for many, many reasons. and to write any of these experiences off as being inherently good or inherently bad would be to simplify the people i have met, the shantytowns in which i volunteer, the small and conflict-torn church where i work and live and the intense and eye-opening experiences i've had along the way.

if you know me, you will know that i was pretty unexcited by the idea of leaving one really hot and humid summer season in houston just to head straight into another in buenos aires. while i was greatly resenting the reversal of seasons for this reason, what i wasn't anticipating was really longing for an autumn. an october filled with scarves and light cardigans and the smug awareness that the smothering heat has passed, that days filled with crisp morning runs, boots and crunchy leaves are quickly approaching. and then there's november. once the pumpkins have been carved and the last pair of shorts put away for winter, starbucks' christmas cups come out to play, filled to the top with delicious, warm beverages with hints of cinnamon and cider, begging to be consumed while listening to sufjan's funky rendition of "silent night" or mariah carey's quintessential hit "all i want for christmas is you".

while i am sad that i cannot really partake in any of these activities to their fullest extent, the one thing i truly look forward to every holiday season is watching love actually. i love just about everything about this movie. each vignette tells a different story about the importance of love. what it means to truly be in relationship with your fellow man. and why it is an absolutely fundamental component of life to recognize that we are all really interconnected.

one of my favorite parts of this movie, and one of the true beauties of its script, is that you find out as the movie goes along that all of the characters are linked to one another in some form or fashion.  the intertwining of their stories speaks to the truth of the sentiment that we, as humans, are not rocks. we are not islands. (sorry, art and paul, you two seem to have gotten that one wrong.)  we need each other. interactions and relationships (or the lackthereof) can haunt your thoughts, follow you around from place to place even as you try to bury it forever and move on with your own life and leave the memories and lives of others behind.

i don't need to watch a movie to remind me of this, though. haunting evidence of the importance of interactions, big and small, are all around us, in our own lives and in the stories others share with us.

my older sister is a high school english teacher at a private christian school in houston, where she attempts to enlighten white students with even whiter names about world issues that actually matter. (as it turns out, it's quite a tall task.) we talked earlier this week and she told me that she had shown her students the famous picture of a tiny, emaciated african child resting on her way to a feeding station and a vulture mere feet away, creepily watching his prey of choice. if you are really a human being, and if you see this picture once, i think it has the ability to follow you around for a lifetime. take a second, though. pictures like this don't show up out of thin air...someone took it.

that person was kevin carter, and he snapped the photo on a trip to the sudan in 1993. it was published in the new york times. it caused quite a stir overnight (and rightfully so), with hundreds contacting the paper inquiring as to the fate of the little girl and why carter had only taken the picture, rather than helping her. one writer went so far as to say of carter: "the man adjusting the lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene." in 1994, carter was awarded the pulitzer prize for his unforgettable snapshot of the misery of starvation and lack of resources for at least one little girl, in at least one region of a giant and ever-troubled continent.

carter ended up taking his own life a little over two months after this achievement, at the age of 33. he left a note which spoke of incurable depression, of regret and shame and an inability to shake all of the horrible and unspeakable tragedies he had witnessed in his years as a photographer. one line reads, "i am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain...of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners", another: "the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist."

while alison told me parts of this story in order to highlight the insensitivity of her students' reactions, i have thought of this daily. of the small girl, of a wounded man, of the cruelty and reality of the fragile lives we live that are so easily affected by the actions or inactions of our fellow man. when you read carter's story, you can see so much more than a two-dimensional man who took a fascinatingly terrible picture and got famous. you realize he was a person, too. that he saw so much more in his short 33 years than he ever should have, that he witnessed human beings doing horrible things to one another and that as a child he was exposed to violence so great, so unbearable that it continued to shape him until the sad last day of his life.

kevin carter is not the only person in the world irreversibly touched both by tragic things inflicted upon his own life, and the things he did not do himself that might have spared other lives, in turn possibly erasing the guilt and shame that caused him to take his own. when you look for it, you can see it everywhere. i saw it this summer when i watched the indescribably depressing documentary about people who have committed suicide by jumping off the golden gate bridge. one man told his friend that if even one person smiled at him on his way to the famous landmark, he wouldn't jump...they found his body days later.

i see it in my own life, too. on one particularly lovely sabbath, the girls and i took the afternoon and went out to tigre, a lovely little area outside of the city that boasts unbelievably green grass on the edge of equally lovely and inviting water. on our way back into the city, the train was jam-packed with tourists, locals, and weary-looking backpackers alike. there was a european-looking couple that looked so evenly matched that they made the other girls and i hope that one day, we would be able to find beaus to whom we were so perfectly suited. there was the man who knocked me in the head with his suitcase and didn't apologize, on whom i would have gone all steven slater if i had a) spoken perfect spanish b) had access to an emergency exit and c) not really needed to be on that last train in order to make it back to the church before sundown. but there was one boy on the train i could not figure out, and who unassumingly caught my eye for that very reason. he had piercing green eyes and looked very young and worldly at the same time. as he was preparing to get off at his stop, he commented to one of the people with whom he'd been chatting that he couldn't wait to get home and make himself a couple of burger patties with ketchup and go to bed. my roommate caty overheard and commented on how good that sounded, and a man looked directly at caty and said, "yeah, but you have no idea where this kid lives"--not-so-subtley suggesting that this boy was headed back to a part of town that would surely change our opinions of him. the aforementioned kid, without losing a stride, said "yeah, but we don't know where she lives either." something about this small conversation has continued to affect me in the weeks since it happened. it's true--so often we don't know each other, at all. and making presuppositions about where each other are coming from will only take us further and further from one another, instead of drawing us closer together because we are all humans, because we all have experienced life as broken individuals trying to survive at the hands of an equally broken world.

finally, there was a man i met this summer in africa, early one freezing morning while my team and i handed out food to homeless men on the streets, men addicted to huffing glue and who normally go unnoticed in the eyes of a world that tells them they are less than worthless, worse than trash. when i asked him if i could pray for him about anything specific, he told me anything i could think to pray for him about, he probably needed. his eyes wordlessly spoke of an unbelievably hard life, and as much as it hurt to look at him and think of what every day on the street held in store for him, i couldn't look away. as i was leaving to go back to our nice, warm hotel in the heart of nairobi, he called out after me, "if you even think of me once back in the states, if you pray for me even once years from now, meeting you will have been worth it."

that was on the first day of our trip, and months later it still proves to be the moment that i overwhelmingly remember above all else from my two and a half weeks there.

the other day i read a quote by MLK Jr that said "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. i can never be what i ought to be until you are what you ought to be. this is the interrelated structure of reality." 

the small, starving african child could never be who she was supposed to be until carter was, as well. carter could never be who he was supposed to be until the others in his life were, too, those who had made him so calloused toward pain and suffering early on in life that he was able to be a professional photographer in a war-torn world until he took his very last breath. the man who took his own life off the bridge could never be who he was supposed to be until someone else fulfilled their purpose, too, and gave a sad, lonely man a smile on what would end up being his own death march. the young, probably homeless boy can never be who he is supposed to be until the rest of the train's occupants were as well. until we no longer judge others by their looks, or social status, or what they could do for us. and my friend that lives on the streets in kenya can never be who he is supposed to be, either, until i am who i am supposed to be. until i remember him every day, pray for his sobriety, pray for his friends that suffer the same fate, and pray for whatever hole in the system to be fixed that allows grown men to live on the streets, year after year, without a single hand being lent in a silent offering of empathy and strength.

i want to be a person who never forgets this "interrelated structure of reality". i hope i can always recognize that my own purpose in life is to help others fulfill theirs. and i hope, above all, that one day we can live in a world where living in this way is more natural, less against the tide, one in which we faithfully seek to help each other to be better people above all of our own goals and wants and needs just because we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that each of our actions affects our fellow human being.


  1. Thanks Claire--I so appreciate your thoughts and insight here. Even tho it may mean I don't sleep as well tonight. But hopefully, I will remember to smile a little more tomorrow. Love you and miss you.

  2. Awesome blog claire, very powerful stuff. Thanks for the reminder and loved the quote.

  3. I got a peppermint mocha today when I went to Target. It made me think of you. Also, because you like Target.

  4. Thank you for the reminder that life is not even remotely about me.

    You should also know that I don't have a Super Target or a Starbucks anywhere near me either. I (on a smaller scale) FEEL your PAIN.

  5. I love your humbling posts. You are brilliant and wise and I LOVE you!
    Keep bring the amazing, encouraging light for the Lord that you are.
    Let's please talk soon. xoxox

  6. well said claire. your words are wise.
    i love the connections you make.