The last couple of weeks I’ve been pondering puns and crafting urgently uplifting stories to pepper the year end email blasts and appeal letters for the organization I work for. Which has had me thinking a lot about what it is that motivates people to give. To break out of their daily routine. Their normal spending habits. To give to someone they’ll never meet and never would have heard of, if it weren’t for me. It’s a pretty weighty responsibility.
Everyone past the age of five knows that life isn’t always fair. Brother gets a bigger portion of chocolate cake. Deal with it. Your favorite sweater with the blue stripes is still in the hamper the morning you want to wear it. Deal with it. You get passed up for the job interview by someone from within. Deal with it. You’re underqualified. Deal with it. You’re overqualified. Deal with it.
There’s a lot to say for adaptability and resilience and perseverance in the face of unfairness. Life would come to a standstill without it. But when should we say enough? When does the status quo become unacceptable? How do you convince someone with a nice house and nice car and a nice family with 2.5 nice children and a nice dog in a nice U.S. city that the status quo is unacceptable? That third world poverty is not okay. That racism and prejudice in our own country is not okay. That the disparity between the wealthy and the woefully penniless is not okay.
What would convince someone? Short of immersion in a third world reality for three months in an unfamiliar language. I don’t know.
For me it happened as a 19-year-old in Central America.
Guatemala City, Guatemala, April 2006
Is it so awful to say that after awhile all third world countries start to look the same? The littered highways, the graffiti-covered concrete buildings, the bars and spikes and security guards with guns. I wish I could say that I instantly connected with Guatemalans, that it mattered to me that they had been in a civil war for the past fifty years. But I didn’t care about the indigenous, specifically Mayan, influence on the culture or that hundreds of thousands of women had mysteriously lost their husbands and sons, fathers and brothers to midnight kidnappings and mass murders during the war. I feared there was nothing in me that cared anymore.
As a group, we visited an organization committed to helping people who had lost friends and relatives in the war. Not an organization so much as a support group, un apoyo mutuo. Hundreds of portraits lined the walls. There were young men, old men, fat men, some merely boys. All were missing. Gone.
As the leader, an indigenous woman wearing a crumpled grey skirt as crinkled as her wrinkled, weary eyes, described the group’s brave and somber purpose, I snuck back to the bathroom. I returned during the question and answer segment. I had just slid into my cold, metal chair when one of my classmates asked the question we’d all wanted to know.
“How many men have you found?” “Cuantos han encontrado?” The group was devoted to searching for the missing family members, los desaparecidos. Surely, some must have been reunited with their loved ones.
“Cero,” the woman stated matter-of-factly. “Zero.”
The room suddenly felt very small. I felt very small. All these years and they still hadn’t found anyone? Where did they go? How could they be gone?
Outrage knotted in my stomach, reminding me that the reason I felt so lost and numb was because I had cared. I cared an awful lot. I wanted to thrash and scream right there in that chair. If I screamed loud enough or shut my eyes hard enough, maybe it wouldn’t be true. I could will the world into fairness and justice and peace. “What shouldn’t be” circled round and round in my head, a waterwheel of indignation. I didn’t find any answers to these deep social and economic problems, but for the first time, at least I wasn’t ignoring them.
I knew then that the world is not okay. And since then. Since that fateful semester. (Stealing from the words of a best friend) I have been (trying) to figure out a way to “fight both first world apathy and third world poverty.”
What is it that breaks you out of apathy? What motivates you to give to causes you can’t taste, touch, see, or feel? What tells you that the status quo is unacceptable?