Breakfast at my kitchen table. I am peacefully enjoying my oatmeal with blueberries when I click on a Tyler Hicks’ article about a front page photo that appeared in the NY Times a while ago. Full screen, on my high-resolution Mac lap top, it’s like a punch in the stomach that halts my breakfast mid-way.
The emaciated body of a Somali child, lying on his side, skin gripping bones, his arms covering his head, makes me feel guilty about the bounty in my fridge, about my organic vegetables, my live bacteria yogurt. I am sitting in my kitchen while this child, if not already dead, is fighting a losing battle to stay alive. I feel as if it’s all my fault, and the fault of all the privileged people like me who appease our conscience by shelling out a few bucks to the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders every time a natural disaster occurs and then resume eating oatmeal and blueberries.
The correlation between what I can do, what my friends can do, to stop a famine in Africa is tenuous at best. But there are calamities that push us more than others to pick up the phone or send an e-mail to our Representatives in Congress, to write a letter to the editor – in brief, to contribute to the public discourse. Far away famines are not such occasions. Why?
As a child, I had a strong antipathy towards starving African children as they were my mother’s chief argument for forcing me to finish my dinner. I might have grown up in fat Bologna, but I always looked as if I needed a few extra pounds. Now I struggle to understand and I really haven’t the faintest idea what it feels like to be hungry. Really hungry, debilitated by the need for food, hunger that makes you crazy, that robs people of tears and thoughts.
As I merrily toss the wilted lettuce in the garbage, another child will die, whether I finish my dinner or not. And as grateful as I am to Mr. Hicks, and those like him who risk their lives on a daily basis so people like me can know what it’s like, the truth is we will never fully know and that photo will become just archival material. Worse still, despite our compassion and all our best intentions, there is precious little we can do. And we go on, shutting our eyes when we must, because sometimes closing up is the only means we have to protect ourselves; we tell ourselves there is only so much we can take in, so much we can do and that half a million starving children is just a fact of life. Or is it?
P.S. If you are not familiar with Tyler Hicks’ work, I strongly encourage you to check it out.