Conscience on a Ledge

Over the last few weeks, throughout early morning writing sessions, late night socializing, and the swirl of multicolored tasks that make up the in-betweens, my heart has had trouble resting easy. For once, it’s not due to any great dissatisfaction with life. My days tip more toward busyness than boredom, but I’m grateful for the creative luxury of molding my own time, for the daily check-up with my priorities. I’m happy with our family life too and our current balance between stability and excitement. Strong friendships are in the works. Opportunities abound. We can see the light at the end of the credit card statement.

However, my thankfulness and energy buzz have slunk away in shame following each new mention of Haiti. Stories like this and this, not to mention the news reports, aid auctions, and countless pleas for money, forced tragedy into my periphery. Millions without shelter or food or medical supplies… airports blocked, adoptions halted, supplies looted… impulsive relief groups stealing children… the chaos of some trying to do the right thing and others trying just to stay alive compounded with whether I should donate €10 with a text message or buy a cookbook or bid on a painting or empty PayPal’s pockets into any number of beseeching hands… I felt like I was examining calamity through a thousand microscopes.

Around the same time, a friend asked me to read her boss’s new blog exploring social justice issues like human trafficking, burdensome charity, and water allotment. Our church took up a drive to help impoverished leprosy victims in India. Compassion International brought bloggers to Kenya to report on local children’s living conditions and the need for sponsors. I heard the refreshingly-controversial Derek Webb’s “Rich Young Ruler”… and my conscience went into dizzy overdrive.

What am I supposed to do with the whole world’s sorrow at my fingertips?

It’s an honest question. I believe we humans were made to care, deeply, about each other. I see it as part of our divine imprint, the throb of compassion when we see someone in pain, the ability and drive to meet each other’s unique needs. Discomfort over suffering in our world shouldn’t be shrugged off easily; it’s what makes us humane. However, the accessibility of information makes it especially difficult for me to find my place among seven billion wishful thinkers.

Should we stop paying off debt, forget about retirement savings, and send the money to charity? Should we move back to the States where we could make a lot more and live on a lot less? Should we do away with date nights, family vacations, and birthday presents?  How can we possibly choose between the desperate situations stippling the globe?

My heart chimes in from time to time to talk my conscience off the ledge. It tells me that unfocused guilt is neither healthy nor helpful. It looks me in the eyes and says that I cannot cure the world and that even if it were possible, my job is not to do so. My heart is convinced that the needs I should be attending to belong to the people already in my life—a refugee mom at church without baby blankets, a lonely landlord eating supper alone, neighbors with health problems, a friend who’s struggling in her marriage, another caught in a messy divorce, yet another mourning the death of her child. Every day, I have opportunities to ease specific burdens, to spread kindness face-to-face.

This strikes me as true religion, every bit as significant as disaster relief for third-world countries. It’s how I can make a positive, lasting difference even with limited resources and my own family to care for, and it feels fundamentally right. So why is my conscience still crouched halfway out a windowsill obsessing about the wide, wounded world that needs a cure?

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  1. Sometimes I think that it’s just too overwhelming that we ‘know’ about all the tragedies all the world over – it’s too much for one person to process. We can’t be everywhere. It’s amazing that we can send aid teams to Haiti and Chile and dig water wells in Kenya and try to eradicate AIDS in Africa and there are certainly people who are called to do so. It is overwhelming, and to me, yes, it seems like a Grand Canyon of need. Like you, it’s so important that we help the people in our neighborhood. Our community. You are right to help where you can and be assured that you’re fulfilling the ‘new commandment’ – love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.

  2. I think you are right: charity begins at home. Even if you choose to send money to this cause or that one, it’s ultimately what you do with the community that surrounds you that makes a tangible impact on your life. Beautiful post, Bethany.

  3. I lived in Bangkok for some years, the appalling poverty nearly broke me in two.

    Which helped precisely nobody since I was so paralyzed with guilt and grief that I was as useful as a chocolate teapot.

    so my only advice love is to do what you can, when you can, but live your life, because your days being filled with pain won’t take away theirs, it will only squander your luckier times.

    And shut your ears to the outside world sometimes love. Take a little news media holiday.

    Man did not evolve to be able to take in disaster, horror and anguish on a massive scale on a daily basis.

    We need some time till our genes catch up with the technological developments in global media.

    If you need to help in a tangible way once you feel better after a break from the drip drip drip of disater, find one person down on their luck or one small local charity and offer your time (within reason, don’t make yourself a martyr to it) and do what you can to ensure that with your help in that one spot, resources are being freed up to be used elsewhere.

  4. They say “home is where the heart is” and if you share your heart with those closest to you, you are still caring for humanity. I try to support (monetarily) the big catastrophes that happen in the world: Hurricane Katrina, the big Tsunami, Haiti… I send a check to the Red Cross and trust that there are people whose passion it is to work on emergency disaster relief. I know it probably isn’t enough, but…. But. I don’t have the answer for you. I am so in awe of your spirit. I tend to bury my head in the sand instead of really seeking out information that is painful. It is just easier on my heart. That you have written so beautifully about this struggle, and have sat with it (even out on a ledge) is so brave. I could totally sit with you, but…. But. I am not as brave as you are. xoxo (And, I am so happy that the *rest* of your life is going along happily…you deserve to be happy. 🙂 )

  5. Well-put, B. It’s impossible to reconcile the troubles of the wide world with our everyday goings-on. If your ledge is big enough, scoot on over…

  6. This is something I’ve been thinking about so much, and feel too, deeply. Thank you for putting it into words…

  7. Hi- I came via Lizardek’s blog. This is the quandary we caring individuals all face. You have spoken for all of us. But, you are doing just what you should be doing…taking care of what you can in your neighborhood., sharing what you can.
    It seems disasters bring out the best in all of us, but then – too often, we retreat back to safety and ignore the neighborhood. And, yet that’s where we can bring about the greatest change. Just keep doing what you are doing, but let the guilt go.
    I second Sarah in Italy’s remark about taking a media holiday. Relax.

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