I’m not talking about knowing where to send money. That is always made clear and right away. But somehow, the sending of a check or a credit card number seems very arm’s-length and uninvolved when the motivation is intense. And so, event by event, I have felt the increasing restlessness well up within me, a disquiet about somehow not doing my part, not being there to help make a difference. Believing that we each have the calling to be a significant difference in the lives of others, I am nagged by the realities of living in Iowa, of working a full-time job, of my own cowardice and a dozen more excuses for not being there. If ever there was a time to “lend a hand,” it would seem to be now. And yet I don’t know what to do.
The people of Japan would appear to be especially needful right now. They are faced with shortages of food, water, medical supplies, shelter and just about anything else considered necessary for basic life essentials. Even those who were not directly shaken by the earthquake or deluged by the tsunami or under the cloud of radiation, are nonetheless feeling the strain of devastation to their country. But I’ve sent money. And I am not a doctor, a firefighter, a nuclear expert or even a first responder. Travel to Japan is almost impossible. Each night I see the despair, the needs, and I don’t know what to do.
It’s a familiar feeling, in a way. I have felt the same emotions from time to time in the midst of the Foundation’s work in Nicaragua, where the scope of poverty and need is immense. At times I am overwhelmed by the opportunities to assist and the limitations of our abilities to respond. But in Nicaragua, at least we are present, we are taking action as best we know how, and our accompaniment feels as though it makes some kind of difference in some people’s lives. It’s when I consider the organizations to whom we cannot respond, and think about their futures, that I confess to feeling that I don’t know what to do.
We live in a world that is both growing and shrinking: growing in its needs and shrinking in the spaces between all of us. The populations of people who do not have enough of basic life needs is becoming larger. Yet around the globe, the proximity of all of us to each other is becoming closer, especially in light of technology which keeps us visible and accessible to one another. The outcome of this is a global panorama that is beautiful in its diversity and frightening in its demands. The questions of what can be done are met with my fears that I don’t know what to do.
Then, about the time that my frustration is about to merge with panic, I recall “a lesson from the south,” learned in 1990 after my very first visit to Central America. Preparing to return home after visits to war-torn El Salvador and Nicaragua, I expressed my feeling out loud that perhaps I should change my life, sell off everything that I owned, and move my family to Nicaragua to help those in need, that this was the way in which I could make a difference. But my ruminations were overheard by a Nicaraguan woman, who both understood my feelings as well as my limitations.
Do not do this, she commented with a shake of her head. You cannot solve our problems. We must be the ones to recognize our troubles and find our solutions. If you want to make a difference in our lives, do not come here to live but understand who we are, what we face. Know that we are here, and like you, seek the best for our children and ourselves. Pray for us. But know that where you are is important, as well. Learn to be an influence in your own niches of life on our behalf. Tell our stories. Share what you know of our lives. This is a way for you to be with us.
I vividly recall that the advice soothed my seething emotions at the time and allowed me to return to my life in the U.S. without overwhelming shame or guilt. It’s been a lesson I have recalled time and time again as I have bounced between two cultures so dramatically different in resources and focus. And finally, late last week, it emerged once again as an answer in the face of such overwhelming despair over not knowing what to do.
The world and its condition is not my “fault.” I live on a planet and in a time of both great need and unprecedented opportunity. I am neither to blame or to be thanked for these realities and only I can assess whether I have been more inclined to the one reality as opposed to the other. It’s a matter for my conscience and whatever universal judgment I face at the end of my life. But there is a role for me to play, a place for me to make a difference, and it’s right before me. In the impacts I make daily upon everyone around me, positive or negative, intended or not, I change the world even if in small ways. My interactions are not preordained or fated. They are by choice.
I’ve heard all of that many times before, so often that it has become a cliched response and even a comfortable way to avoid a feeling of helplessness. But what feels like the least I can do may, in fact, be the best I can do. So I feel it. Say it. Write it. Advocate it. It’s not the same as digging through the wreckage of destroyed lives, but at least I know what I can do….