Haiti: Pain and Lessons to be Learned

I received saw the message below on a Facebook friend’s page, and it made me think about how TV influences how we feel and express emotions. The pain Americans are seeing on their TV screens of the Haitian disaster is such a small part of the pain worldwide every day, and yet it takes a disaster and a TV crew for us to see it, and yet not really see.

From C.

“I can’t watch the news after last night’s reporting on a five year old girl who was going to either have her leg amputated or die from the infection and the mother said, right there in front her daughter, to let her die. The girl cried out and extended her hand to her mother – the doctor had to tell the mother to take her daughter’s hand. I can’t stop crying after seeing that.”

My reply:

C, I’m not directing this at you, but your heartfelt pain made me think:

The mother was making a decision for her other children. In the third world, they live close to the edge every day, a child that cannot work the fields, or the streets, a child that must be cared for, could take the whole family down. It appears cruel to us, but we are not faced with that mother’s decision. I suspect the reason the mother would not take the child’s hand is self-preservation, her own sanity.

The thousands of mothers are making these same kinds of decisions daily around the world, not just Haiti, not just today. We were recently in Laos, where the anti-personnel “bombies” America dropped during the “American War” are still maiming and killing, 40 years later; such heart wrenching decisions are still being made by mothers.

Part of the pain you feel is from being so far away and seeing it through the flickering eye of a TV screen. If you could be there to hold that child’s hand while she died, it would probably be less painful for you, you would be doing something, involved, not just watching.

We were able to save a drunk who crashed his motorcycle in Vietnam recently. He was going to drown in his own puke, or burned from the gasoline his cigarette would have ignited. All it took was a willingness to do something. We were lucky to be there (that means actually traveling to such places) and be able to do what comes naturally. But, that man, his family, and bystanders will never feel the same way about Americans.

Americans travel so little, and when they do, they wrap themselves in the cocoon of cruise ship or tour bus, and are denied the opportunity to actually touch and be touched by the people. I’m not saying everyone should travel by bicycle as we do, but a few simple choices in travel planning can make the difference between seeing a country through a filter of luxury, or making direct contact.

Don’t take a predetermined tour. The tour leaders are sure you don’t want to meet the real people, but a sanitized version of folk presentations. Travel independently, and  don’t always stay in the travel destinations, the tourist towns; stay in smaller towns or villages, spread your money around. Look that street vendor in the eye while you negotiate some mystery meat on a stick. Return her smile. Not only will you have more fun, more memories, but that street vendor will remember that some Americans actually cared enough to want to see her village, and how she lives. Small things make a difference.

Market Vendor in Cambodia

Market Vendor in Cambodia

TV is unfortunately a one-way street. We can see. We can hurt, but we can’t give our selves (two words purposely) to that little girl, or the crashed drunk or… because we aren’t there.

We owe the World more than feeling its pain through our high-def screens. We need to be there as they live their day-to-day lives, so they know we care enough to come see them. Donations of supplies are necessary in time of crisis, but a better thing is to go to places like Haiti between disasters, spend a little money, shake a hand, laugh together, eat together, breathe their bad air, drink their boiled water, sleep on a board, defecate in an outhouse as they do.

Then come back and give some money to a micro credit organization that will help them help themselves, or maybe work to see that our government does not drop more anti-personnel weapons on innocent rice farmers. It all makes a difference. Watching and empathizing with a flat screen TV doesn’t change anything.


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