Saturday, January 23, 2010

I'm Beginning to Look at Haiti

When the first pictures came on TV, I was caught in that excited curiosity that grabs the attention of the public when they see the words, written big and red across the screen, "breaking news." But a day later I didn't want to see it at all. As the scale of it and the rawness of came into focus it became too much for my mind to grasp; too much for my heart to bare. I quickly sent $50 to the Red Cross, and found ways to look away.

But there is a guilt that I've carried now for days. How can I not look hard at this? It is not just Haiti's experience. It is such a naked human tragedy that it is also our experience; my experience; the experience of all of humanity squeezed onto a Caribbean island; all of our secret frailties, prejudices and fears pushed into view.

The nagging that I feel is not just the guilt of looking away. I also feel guilty about looking. What right do I have to look now, after all of these years of knowing. What right to have to look at the indignity of bony grandmothers and plump children and muscular men; bodies arranged in rows along the curb, all mixed in with the rubble and the trash. What right do I have to look at the dirty, broken bodies of people forced out of the privacy of their agony and grief; forced to live out their hell in the streets; in front of the cameras?

It's complicated. I'm having a hard time identifying all of the feelings that are sturing in my emotional stew. I tell myself that it's okay to look without seeing too much and to turn the channel so as not to see too much; not to think too much about it. What's the use? My brain and my heart are too small. I can't imagine that much death. I can't imagine the pain that is being experienced by even one single individual who's beloved has been crushed, who can't put them properly to rest in a proper grave, let alone feel the enormity of that, multiplied by a million.

But that's really no excuse; that it's too big and I'm too small. I don't have a choice. There it is, the worse that can happen to human being, right in front of my human eyes. I can pretend that is doesn't have to do with me. That it's far away in a foreign land. That the Haitians are so different from me; they are experiencing it in a whole different way than I would. But none of that is true. Haiti is not a world away and the people are not so different from me when it comes to the lose of love and life.

I find myself denying the reality of it all. It's kind of like when I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. My mind couldn't take it in. I fought against it. It didn't fit into the categories of my prior learning and the capacity of my understanding. Little by little it is sinking in, but I will probably never comprehend the full horror of it. I can only create an abstracted version that I can live with.

In my culture we are insulated from the reality of death. I didn't see a dead human outside of a funeral home until I was forty years old. Americans in 2010 go to great lengths to avoidance death and dying. We pay people that we don't know to take of the bodies of our loved ones. We say, "goodbye" to embalmed, powdered and waxed ecto-forms and we say, "That's not her. She's gone." We transition quickly from death and decay and loss and grief, to vision from our memory. We imagine the departed floating near by, ready to whisper consolations, or living on in heaven, poised to receive us into the kingdom.

When reality is too much for us to mentally comprehend, or to bare emotionally, we are faced with a dilemma. We have to either accept a reality that is too brutal, to harsh, to huge and risk being destroyed by its enormity, or place that reality within a larger mythic context, outside of experience and reason. We place this earth that sustains us, but can also shake us to our core within a larger realm; the earth atop a tortoise or held aloft by Hercules, or cradled in arms of Jesus. When understanding fails us, we look beyond it to faith. I'm not very fussy these days about the exact specifications of the here-after and beyond. But I do need it. I envision it in different ways as the moment requires. I am not willing to accept that redemption and justice exist, or fail to properly exist, only within the limits of human logic. My soul entertains the possibility that the unjust, disproportional tragedies of this world might make some kind of sense in a transcendent cosmology. I recognize that this is partly a way that I avoid the starkness of the reality of Haiti, but I have to, and I honestly believe that their are beyond the mind of man.

Some are tempted to believe that the Haitian people somehow brought this upon themselves. Pat Robertson says they had it coming. Their ancestors made a pact with the devil long ago and Satan is claiming what is rightfully his. I guess he figures that if it's the wrath of God then humans are off the hook. At least the big questions of "why" are taken care of. He applied the same logic to AIDS epidemic, and 911 and New Orleans. I can't imagine how scary it is to believe in the God of Reverend Robertson.

I think there are a lot of people who want to do something now. They have the same confused, guilty feelings as me. We want to believe that we can make it, if not all right, at least better. We send money, we volunteer to go and help clean up or care for the orphans. Maybe we can make Haiti a better place. Maybe I can help.

I think I need to do some art work about Haiti. That's the way for me to process the experience. I can't understand it. I mustn't ignore it. Maybe I can take it and give my experience of it a visible form. It's something that I can do.

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