Friday, July 15, 2011
Regarding the Pain of Others
We have been back from Rwanda for over a month and that marker is tugging at me to think about what I have been saying or not saying about the trip to those around me. For the most part, I have avoided talking about Rwanda. The depth of what we experienced does not make for quick conversation and I think it is inevitably unfair to expect the people in my circle to stop what they are doing so that I can bumble my way through one or more of the stories I carefully folded and slipped into my heart while we were there.
I am realizing too, that there are some things that we saw or heard about that I will probably never share. To do so could only be sensationalist. There is no real way for any of us to make sense of violence, especially violence unleashed on children. And so it seems there are stones in my heart that are there to stay, little obstacles that fresh blood will have to move around. The few time I have tried to share with others some of the hardest images or stories shared with us, I feel like a peddler of other people's pain - and it feels wrong. And the passers-by on whom I have foisted these sample-sized horrors have been caught off guard. And as I have walked away, unsatisfied and unsettlingly lonely, I have thought back to the many times I have filled the uncomfortable space between myself and another's confession of pain with hallow words that easily sour.
The yawning space between life here and life there feels cavernous and eerie.
Proverbs cautions against throwing pearls before swine. If we allow the context to be personal, this verse offends, but it nonetheless describes the voracious consumerism that typifies mainstream America. If a pretty necklace is so easily devoured, how much more costly and inappropriate the laying of old bones and fresh wounds on a busy sidewalk. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, posits the idea that "there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it – say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken – or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be."
I think I am beginning to understand what she means. And our friend Theo was clear that we were not to carry away Rwanda’s sorrow, but only her joys. I feel a deep sense of obligation to honor our friend.
But I also know that my friends and I here at home are numbed to what happens on other continents by the distance of miles and the interference of noise that buzzes continuously around our sheltered lives. And what happened in Rwanda, and what continues to happen in places like Rwanda need not happen. Sontag asks another good question: “What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?” And which exactly do I mean to do? What is my small part? Am I only to acknowledge? Does not that acknowledgement carry with it some responsibility to act?
Bearing in mind that none of these stories are really mine to tell, an image that holds for me the richness of a thousand stories is the photo above that I took on our last day. We visited the Rwanda Partners office in Kigali and I got a picture of some of the men who are working for this amazing organization. Theo is on the left. Pascal is third from the left. Gilbert, next to Pascal with the wide smile, as a child used to bring crafts to sell to visitors at the compound where we were staying. He is now a husband and father or two girls. One day, Gilbert traveled with us to the weaver cooperatives, which he oversees. He danced. Answered questions. And at dusk, as we made it back to the city, Gilbert hopped out of the van to attend night school.
Each of these men represent households that are earning professional wages. And all of these men are old enough to have lived through the genocide. I don’t know all of their stories, but as they stood smiling and joking with each other in the bright sun on this particular day, the miracle of their lives, friendship and employment nearly buckled my knees.
I think if you steered away from the memorials, you could visit Rwanda without running into the genocide. You could get lost in the dust and buzz of markets
And maybe that is okay. But then again, maybe it isn’t.
Either way, for my part, I find myself a bit paralyzed somewhere between the pitfalls of frenzied and ultimately unhelpful “do-goodiness” and the sin of silence. And for the moment, as our friend Pastor Larry says, I think I will just hold that.