I’ve been talking this morning with my friend John, in Ghana. For the last couple of weeks, John’s been telling me about his friend Celestine, who’s lived the last three years with some kind of debilitating tumor in her abdomen. John’s been back and forth to the hospital in Accra this week, signing Celestine up for the national health care, scheduling CT and MRI scans, making sure she’s getting some much-needed protein, and covering her expenses out of his pocket.
It was pretty scary, but really a small-ish deal in the end. The doctor in Elgin found the tumor, I flew home to Virginia, and another doctor removed Steve immediately. My health insurance covered the whole process, I got to stay on the couch in my parents’ house for six weeks of rather comfortable recovery, and things snapped mostly right back to normal (minus 1.5 teratomas and 1 ovary).
The process is different for Celestine – she’s been sitting in her house for three years while her tumor grows. Her son dropped out of school to care for her, she got so sick she couldn’t eat, and her family didn’t have the resources to get her the care she needed.
I’m grateful, and angry, and connected, and confused.
Honestly, I’m pretty skeptical and embarrassed by this kind of comparative empathy. I’m grateful for the family and the money and the medicine that allowed me to get rid of Steve so quickly and - with the help of a few Vicodin - so painlessly. But being grateful because of someone else’s lack seems incredibly coarse.
I don’t know Celestine, and I’ve never been to Ghana. I don’t know how healthcare works there, or how the Ghanaian culture thinks about and treats illness. I’ve been properly schooled in cultural sensitivity and immersed in political correctness long enough to know, at least, that there is a magnitude that I just do not know.
I’ve been reading commentary on the recent Invisible Children campaign about Joseph Kony – passionate advocacy to bring a war criminal to justice and equally impassioned critique about the operations of Invisible Children and their tactics. Some of my youth have been involved with Invisible Children for a while, and it’s obvious that it’s sparked some deep connection and compassion within them. But I also know that it’s just impossible to know everything about everything – and that all aid and advocacy is not good aid and advocacy.
So, how do we know what to do? The world is big, the problems are myriad, and it’s hard to know who to trust, what to back, where to start.
So, I’m worried and I’m anxious. I’m worried about acting out of false empathy and anxious about fueling sentimental, emotionally charged but ultimately ineffective campaigns. But there’s all this energy, all this compassion, all this connection, and it needs to go somewhere.
I’m skeptical of non-profit fundraisers and outside aid organizations imposing their expectations on people and families they’ve never met. But still, I live with reckless abundance while other people suffer. What do I do about that?
I don’t know Celestine, and I don’t know Ghana. I don’t know what’s going on with Celestine in the hospital. I don’t know how I can or should be involved. I don’t know what the answers to the big questions about aid and advocacy and cultural imperialism and global connection are, and that bothers me.
But I do know John. Three years ago, when I told him I had a tumor, he hung up the phone, got in his car, and drove from St. Louis to Chicago. He slept on my couch, calmed my anxiety, and drove me to the airport. He knew I needed something, so he did something about it. And now, three years later and half a world away, he’s doing the same thing for someone he just met.
Doing the right thing – knowing what the right thing is – usually seems like an unending battle to me. No matter how hard I try to let go and ease into some generous ethical posture of good, my brain and my being fight back against the simplicity, the imperfections, the looming possibility of not getting it right.
But here’s what I’m thinking, today: I don’t know a lot of answers, but I do know a lot of people – people in Ghana and Oregon and Germany and Indiana and Sudan and Mississippi and Bosnia and California and Ireland and Virginia, people who know people and people who know the specific suffering of those particular places.
So I think, for today, I’ll trust that. I’ll trust that connection and compassion come through real relationship, and start there. I don’t know if that’s enough or not, and I don’t know if it’s right. But it’s what I’ve got, so it’s what I’ll do.