I'm sitting on my couch drinking freshly brewed coffee as I watch the devastation that is Haiti on my new HD television. My daughters are fighting over a sweater upstairs.
“It’s mine,” one yells.
“But I want to borrow it!” The other shrieks back. “I let you borrow my stuff all the time.”
I wait for more drama to unfold upstairs as I watch the 82nd Airborne in action in Port-au-Prince. People collect around the boxes being dropped from helicopters, arms flailing to get the food and water they can for themselves, their loved ones. There is no order. They are pushing and screaming for survival.
“Stop pulling at me. I just put it on!” I imagine the one who wants the sweater tugging on the other one who is wearing the sweater.
“But you’re only wearing it because I asked you if I could wear it. You’re doing it to make me mad!” It is true. They both live to irritate the other.
I feel powerless on every human level. Powerless because I cannot convey to my children what an absolute waste of time it is to fight over an item of clothing, but more powerless because their behavior, in contrast to what I’m witnessing on the new television (in high definition), is even more abhorrent to me than ever.
On a normal day, I would make the one wearing the sweater confess that she did, in fact, put it on to piss her sister off. Then I would remark that letting her sister borrow the sweater is not going to take years off her life. It actually is a kind thing to do and acting in kindness can ADD years to your life, as a matter of fact. Yes, I read this somewhere in Reader’s Digest or something. I would confuse the hell out of them with my conversation on kindness, thereby distracting them from their fight over a sweater neither of them even care to wear anymore because by now Mom would have also told them that she just pulled it out from the laundry because she was too lazy to follow its laundering instructions. “That sweater was actually underneath a pile of dirty underwear,” I would say. They would smirk at each other and move on to their next argument.
But this is not a normal day. My tolerance for their behavior is non-existent. Don’t they have a clue that people are living under tarps with no food or water still looking for their loved ones trapped under their broken homes now reduced to rubble? Don’t they know how fortunate they are and how grateful they should be that I’m even alive to care about their stupid fight?
When I watch the television alone, I feel powerless. I feel disconnected from the surreal. But I can mobilize and write a check or pray or decide that I will be grateful for every light that shines and every morsel of food and that next drink of water that I have. I can make a decision to do all of these things because I am an adult. I can do something about the powerlessness that I experience.
The harder emotion I have is the disconnectedness, that surreal experience that comes from watching human suffering on high definition television. And this is less a feeling that I personally experience because I have lived in a third world country and have experienced suffering of people devastated by poverty first-hand. Instead, the disconnected feeling I have is for my children who do not understand how ill-prepared they will be in our world if they do not turn their attention away from fighting over a sweater and towards the needs of humanity. They are children. Innocent, protected children. I have raised them this way because I convinced myself that I was being a good mother when I protected them from pain and suffering.
Today, I feel different. Today, I wish I connected them more to something other than their happy oblivion about the larger world.
“Get down here!” I yell from the couch. “Quit your fighting and get down here.” I realize at this point that I will not be quoting the article on kindness in the Reader’s Digest.
I can hear their sheepish footsteps coming down the stairs. “Get in here and look at this!” I yell again and watch their eyes bulge at the television depicting the horrors that my adult mind cannot even fathom. “You’re fighting about a goddamn sweater and these people don’t have water to drink!” I consider at this moment that I am doing exactly what my parents did to me, pouring the guilt on them that will awash them in shame.
It works. Their shoulders slump. “But she wouldn’t let me borrow the sweater.” One is still mired in the pettiness, in spite of the hell-on-earth scenes flashing from the television. I breathe deeply because I also realize at this moment that I am responsible for this disconnect.
“You’re still fussing about a sweater? Are you kidding me? Look at these kids!” I point at the television, pounding it into them.
“Mom, I just can’t, ok? I know all about Haiti. They made us watch something in school on Friday. I just can’t handle it, ok?”
I watch as my daughter exits the living room, trying to deal with the earthquake in her way. The other one sits cross-legged on the floor next to me and watches as the camera spans the most remote areas in Haiti where people have little to no chance of survival. We watch as I sip my coffee.
“Mom, it makes no sense that we can’t help them,” she says.
“I know.” I regret the despair in my own voice. I need to instill a sense of action into her, a pro-active attitude about the alchemy of life. The fire purifies the gold, right. This "fire" in Haiti will have a purifying effect on all of us, right? This suffering is enlisting international support. It is spurring action on many fronts. It is giving people that sense of immediacy to alleviate human suffering. It is connecting all of us to the Haitian people. It is reminding us that we are one humanity, not separated by national borders. It is creating intolerance for repressive government. It is teaching us to be thankful and offer construction not destruction at every opportunity. Right?
“But maybe we can help,” I say.
“Just stop fighting over the sweater.”
She rolls her eyes. "How’s that gonna help?”
“If every one of us decided today to choose someone else’s happiness over our own, the world would be a much better place, don't you think?”
“I’m still not sure how that’ll help the people in Haiti.”
“Well, if you believe that we're all connected on some level, maybe it could help in some small way."
I'm not sure she gets what I'm saying, but I can see that the experience of the Haitian people is acting like a catalyst. It's forcing us to stop, pay attention to our priorities and make adjustments where necessary. To a lesser degree, the earthquake has rocked us, as well.
At least I hope it has.
Rest assured in the protection of God. He will preserve his own children under all circumstances. Be ye not afraid nor be ye agitated. He holds the scepter of power in his hand, and like unto a hen he gathereth his chickens under his wings. "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the sun. A time to be born, and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to keep silent and a time to speak." Now, friends, this is the time of assurance and faith and not fear and dread. –Star of the West