Last night my wife and I watched the PBS News Hour as we do most evenings around 6pm. My youngest son was with us for dinner, so he was watching as well. There was a story about Syrian immigrants waiting and walking in the pouring rain in their struggle to cross Slovenia and Croatia on their way to hopeful asylum in Germany. There was a story about continuing violence between Palestinians and Israelis, including the brutal death of an Eritrean man who was an innocent asylum seeker. He had been mistaken for a terrorist, shot by an Israeli policeman and then kicked and beaten by the crowd while bleeding on the ground. Rage unhinged. Fear will lead us there every time. There was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, like a decades old recording, calling for an end to the “senseless violence”.
It was enough to ruin your night.
Part of me wanted to turn it all off, make dinner, pet my dogs, watch playoff baseball. A bigger part of me couldn’t. This is the world we live in. All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. And yet, that familiar feeling of helplessness washed over me. I could see it on the faces of my wife and son as well. I got angry. Angry at the world for being this fucked up. Angry at someone else’s reality intruding on my perfectly comfortable suburban evening. Angry at myself for being angry. And, in short order, anger slid into despair. What to do? Where to start? A facebook posting (or a blog) masquerading as activism is not enough. Not even close.
And that’s when there was a knock on the door.
We live at the end of a cul-de-sac, and this being dinnertime, knocks on the door are uncommon. Isn’t that one of the thin veils we invent to convince ourselves that there is order and civilization in our lives? We don’t interrupt people at dinnertime. Yeah, it’s polite, but it’s also a load of shit. It turns out an interruption was precisely what was called for here. I opened the door, and there stood Emma, our neighbor’s 8 year old daughter, with her Red Flyer wagon waiting behind her on the sidewalk. There was something about that wagon. Still. Expectant. She explained that she was collecting supplies for people in South Carolina who had lost their homes and most of their belongings in the recent flooding.
Wow. I’d forgotten about that. It was, like, two weeks ago. How quickly I’d moved on from one instance of human suffering to the next.
Toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo, paper towels. She was going to South Carolina with a group from her school to deliver these things in November. It would be her birthday while she was there, she explained, and she was sad that she wouldn’t be able to have a regular birthday party here at home, but at least two of her friends would be with her and maybe that would be alright.
Emma is the answer.
We can wring our hands, wallow in despair, put our heads under the covers, post and tweet until our fingers are blue and eyes are red, try to think, think, think our way to being ok in this broken world. But the truth is, it’s broken and that means we—each of us—is broken. There is no escaping it. If you don’t see yourself in the faces of the children of Syrian immigrants, of grieving Palestinian mothers and Israeli fathers, of suddenly homeless South Carolinian families, then, as Nick Kristof said in the New York Times a few weeks ago, you need an empathy transplant. It is a humbling realization. A wake-up call. And the only way through that brokenness is not to think, but to feel, and then feel some more, and then . . . .
Anything. For anyone. Emma didn’t stop to ask if what she was doing was big enough, impactful enough, important enough. It was just enough.
And the children shall lead us. Do something born of compassion today. Anything. At the very least it will turn your heart. And that’s a worthy beginning anywhere you go.