Talking to Misfortune

Today a kid went looking for images for his “Travel Brochure” (a project we do as part of a humanities class in which kids learn everything they can about a country and make a mock brochure about it.) What he found was a good reason why you wouldn’t want to travel to his particular country: people literally starving to death. At 11, you don’t really have too much experience with this, and so he was actually kind of amazed that the emaciated bodies in front of him were actually live people. This realization of course led him to the slightly ridiculous notion that he should share the image he found – now bizarrely titled “this is cool.jpg” – with every other classmate’s file-share.

My first thought, of course, was: “Thanks again, Google safe-search!”

My second thought was that of course you want that image everywhere. Now, “this is cool.jpg” isn’t even beginning to be respectful and understanding to the subjects of said picture, and we had a good long talk about that, for sure. I just wonder if we’re really getting the message across to folks with the latest version of a product(RED) cell phone instead of getting into the heart of the problem, the real stuff that is wrong and WHY we want to fix it, instead of just finding new ways to assuage our guilt through the rampant materialism that’s part of the problem.

Sickness, hunger, and disease are uncomfortable for us, who have risen so comfortably above them; to stare them in the face makes us feel that we are looking at something we shouldn’t. Is it any wonder that we’ve proven so incapable of addressing these issues?

In my very early process of discovering my call, I focused on a theme of talking to power. I thought about how to confront and engage God in my life, whether through prayer, or nature, or other people (who were, more often than not, much smarter than I was.) An exhibit that touched this off was Gregory Colbert’s “Ashes and Snow”, which puts human subjects in close, almost worship-like relation to extremely strong forces of nature: elephants, whales, cheetahs.

The much harder side of that coin is talking to misfortune. How do you express yourself to someone who has lost limbs, family, home? How do you express the desire to be able to soothe a pain you (in most cases) have so little personal understanding of? How do we act as real witnesses for those boys starving in that picture my student found, instead of just detached observers clucking our tongues at the sadness of the whole scene?

The tragic thing is I don’t have a sincere answer yet, and I don’t think ordination will cover that particular chapter. I need more smart people to help me learn…

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