Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Will to Live

I’ve anticipated today for a while now. I’m ending my day in that quiet peace of night, the girls asleep, healthy and at peace. I stayed busy all day, thankfully. Although, at times my memories would almost overtake my amazing ability to repress emotion as a knot would fill my throat, tears would form in the corners of my eyes, and just before losing it, I would recover. I’ve been through tough anniversaries before (April 16th for one), but this is so much harder. Partly because I am still so confused and angry to have witnessed so much horror, destruction, death and agony, partly because I am just so sad.

I’ve been watching the headlines and getting emails from listserves. Some talk about the failings of Haiti’s reconstruction (when can we start calling this what it is: Haiti’s construction?– I really hope Haiti can build back something better than the result of the last 400 years of injustice and inequality), some talk about the cholera epidemic and post-election violence on top of today’s recollection and how Haiti is just Haiti and cursed. Others talk about the promised funds still not issued, or celebrate the little victories and show positive signs of improvement, but seem condescending considering the scale of problems facing Haiti right now. It’s easy to let hope slip away when we listen to these voices.

I tried writing a draft of this over Christmas. What came out was a long diatribe of blame. I want to place responsibility on someone, something, perhaps on God. I went into the brutal history of Haiti and how this natural disaster uncovered (for those not already aware) the unnatural disaster of poverty and its ties to systemic forces and power that can only be understood through social and anthropological analysis. I wrote about witnessing the suffering of the destitute, sick and poor and wondering how anyone of privilege could ignore it. While such root causes are so important, again, those same voices seem to erode hope. And its hope that I, that so many, need today – and tomorrow. While I can’t escape the horrors, the smells, the cries, the awful memories, what I keep going back to is the incredible solidarity of support witnessed and that I am proud to be a part of.

First was the simple will to live. We often herald Haitians for their dignity and resolve in the face of so much suffering. It’s often the only positive thing said about poor people and sometime comes across as patronizing. But damn if witnessing the will to live in such an exposed and intimate manner didn’t humble me. While so many from so many places came to Haiti’s rescue, it was the will to keep fighting, the will to live under the rubble until found, the will to keep the leg despite it being crushed and infected, the resolve to keep digging until they found their friends, to willingness to come to work at their hospital after losing family and without pay, that I recall. Anna gave me a wonderful book, Eight Days, A Story of Haiti, by celebrated Haitian author Edwidge Danticat and illustrated by Alix Delinois, that speaks of resolve and hope in those early days after that Tuesday afternoon. The first responders were Haitians and they are the ones still there, still fighting. And, yet, they were not alone.

I got an email from a friend who recalled the peace at night within the walls of the General Hospital. There, teams of hospital staff and international volunteers saved so many lives, saved so many limbs, saved so much future. Surrounded by so much destruction, here was this oasis of dignified care and healing among the wards and among the beds covering every open space outside, under the tarps. People ate and drank clean water. Family members slept, with some peace knowing that the worst was over. Resources flooded that hospital to support the Haitian staff, resources so different in capability and philosophy, spanning American paratroopers and social justice health care workers, solidified toward a common purpose – coming to the aid of fellow human beings, doing whatever it took to make things better. And it wasn’t just people doing things in Haiti. There were countless stories of people all around the world doing little things and big things. How cool that Change for Haiti started with Anna taking the girls and some friends around the neighborhood going door to door asking for spare change. Or Stride for Haiti that originated in Austin, Texas by Lindsey Olinde and her friends, then quickly spreading around the country even garnering the support of high school students living in rural Virginia (themselves living below the US poverty line). These are things I want to remember.

I don’t know why such terrible things happen. No matter how much we study or try to understand horrors, it’s a part of our humanity. But so too is compassion, solidarity, and love for each other. The true horror comes when we fail to act for our family, friends, and neighbors, regardless of geography and history. My heart breaks for all of those who remember this day as the day their mom, or dad, or wife, or husband, or little girl or boy died. My anger over systemic poverty and broken promises sometimes gets the best of me. However, I rejoice in the will to live, in our collective ability to act, and have hope that as we move forward, our scars remind us, not of the horrors, but of what is possible, that justice in an unjust world is possible.

Pope John Paul once wrote, “Love must inspire justice and the struggle for justice.” We can’t get those people taken when tectonic plates shook Haiti to the ground. But we can begin to vindicate their deaths, and so many like them, when we decide that the world we touch can be better, when we decide to pay attention to what too many call the voiceless poor (oh, they have voice). And when we listen, we then must make a choice, to run in fear or step forward in love and do something, any little thing, to give back, to let someone know they are not alone, to participate in the struggle for justice. So to close with a prayer of Mother Teresa:

Lord, open our eyes,
That we may see you in our brothers and sisters,
Lord, open our ears,
That we may hear the cries of the hungry, the cold, the frightened, the oppressed.
Lord, open our hearts,
That we may love each other as you love us.
Renew in us your spirit
Lord, free us and make us one.