Thursday, February 28, 2008

Letting Them Sit By Me

I last wrote about the small group of friends I had over to watch the Oscars telecast, and the five highlights for me of this particular film awards ceremony. It was a fun post about a fun event and a fun little get-together. Yet there’s more to tell about that night.

For you see, a couple of hours after my friends left, I came down with a terrible bout of food poisoning. It wasn’t caused by something I ate that night, but by something I ate the night before. I could even tell you exactly what I believe it was that I ate and where I ate it. Yet since I can’t actually prove anything, it would be remiss of me to publicly name this particular eating establishment.

Besides, it’s all rather pointless. The thing is I became terribly ill – violently ill – for several hours early Monday morning. I’ll spare you the details, as I’m sure you’ve experienced similar or the same type of experience.

A very scary thing

I would, however, like to share what I thought about during that time. First, as some of you might be able to attest, being alone and sick can be a very scary thing. And with food poisoning you really do feel as if you’re going to and/or want to die! Of course, this is usually before things start being expelled from your body.

I knew what was happening. I knew what would have to happen before I began to feel better. And I just wanted it to all end – in particular the terrible nausea, the shaking and sweating, the panicked sense of claustrophobia – knowing that there was absolutely nothing I could do to escape what I was going through – and the irrational fear that this agony might never end.

Throwing-up is a very unpleasant experience. Repeatedly throwing-up is even worse. Yet once my body started this particular process of ridding itself of whatever it was that it needed to reject, I felt within me a kind of strength, a strange resolve, or, perhaps better still, a calming sense of certainty. My body knew what it was doing, and it was getting on with it – regardless of how unpleasant I might consider it to be.

I will be alright, a part of me intuitively sensed. This will end.

Despite my weak and pathetic state, I knew that I would soon be stretched out on my bed, relieved of much of the pain I was currently experiencing. I knew that in a matter of days I’d once again have the strength to complete my regular sets of weight training exercises, push-ups and sit-ups. I knew that although food was now the last thing on my mind, I’d soon be able to once again enjoy cooking and eating. And although I was now alone and feeling wretched, I knew I had a wonderful circle of family and friends who would care about what I was going through and offer advice and help in my recovery. In short, I knew that I would be okay, even though in many ways, I was still feeling terribly ill.

But the others?

Almost simultaneously, I began thinking about others who were experiencing the type of discomfort and pain I was feeling but who would not be okay. I thought, for example, of people living with chronic pain, of poor people throughout the world in agony for days with dysentery, tuberculosis, and all manner of infectious diseases. I thought of third-world children dehydrated from diarrhea and weak from hunger; of torture victims, blindfolded and alone in their fear and pain. I also thought of workers who do not have the luxury that I knew I would have over the next few days of being able to take time off work so as to stay home in a warm house and a comfortable bed so as to recover.

I tried to relate to such people, to these brothers and sisters of mine throughout the world, but soon realized I couldn’t – not really. For I could say with certainty that “I will be alright . . . This will end.” Yet, more often than not, they cannot. I could pray with them and for them, I told myself. But I wanted more.

I realized I wanted something concrete, something positive and proactive to come out of this terrible experience I was going through – something more than just a fleeting raising of consciousness about the plight of the poor in other parts of the world.

The Fever

As I collapsed exhausted upon my bed, I found myself thinking of scenes from the HBO-produced adaptation of Wallace Shawn’s play, The Fever, starring Vanessa Redgrave. It’s the story of a first world, upper-middle class woman who, while visiting an impoverished, brutalized country, realizes that the economic system that has shaped her life and keeps it full of comforts and cheap commodities, keeps others in poverty. She experiences this realization as a fever – one from which she is unable to escape until she acknowledges that her life within such an unjust economic arrangement is “irredeemably corrupt.” She then can accept that she is “no better than the beggar or the chambermaid” and so “does not deserve to have more than they have.”

The Fever ponders the troubling question: what is a morally consistent way to live in the world as it is? The film offers no quick fixes, no ready answers. We’re simply left with Redgrave’s character anticipating her return to her comfortable home in London, where she’ll be in “my own room, surrounded by my own things – my lamp, my clock, books, presents, my porcelain ballerina.”

Yet things won’t be the same; she can’t and won’t forget the poor. Accordingly, her monologue concludes with these words: “And there among [my things] from now on, let those faces [of the poor] sit by my bed.”

And so I thought: how can I let those same faces sit by my bed, be a part of my everyday life to the extent that they constantly remind me, challenge me, change me?

Something more

As I’ve slowly recovered over the past three days, I’ve thought a lot about this question. I already sponsor a boy in Egypt through
Save the Children Fund, but wanted to do something more, something positive and proactive that I could remember as springing from my recent night of sickness and discomfort.

After careful thought and prayer I went online last night and joined the
Field Partnership Program of Doctor’s Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) by committing to make a monthly financial contribution. It seems insignificant in many ways, I know. But it’s something. And something more than I was doing yesterday.

As part of this program I’ll receive the Doctors Without Borders’ quarterly publication, Alert. I intend cutting out pictures from this publication – pictures of the faces of those I’m reaching out to, helping, standing in solidarity with in this small way of mine. I’ll put these pictures on my refrigerator door and in different places around my home.

I’ll let those faces sit by me.

I’ll let them challenge me and change me.

And I’ll remember our connection.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In Search of a “Global Ethic”
Let’s Also Honor the “Expendables”
John Pilger on Resisting Empire
Irene Khan: Shaking Things Up Down Under
Richard Flanagan Wants a “Gentler, More Generous” Australia
John le Carré’s “Dark Suspicions”
Reflections on Babel and the “Borders Within”
R.I.P. Neoclassical Economics
Capitalism on Trial


crystal said...

Great post. I hope you're feeling better now. I read a little about the Doctors Without Borders after seeing the movie Tears of the Sun. The movie itself wasn't very good but it made me look up the Nigerian Civil War and how the organization began. Compassion - suffering with - that's hard to do.

Jeff said...

Glad you're feeling better Michael. That must have been pretty frightening. Good job putting that into perspective, though, and seeing the challenges that are out there on the table for those of us who are so comfortable.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Crystal and Jeff,

Thanks for your comments. I'm feeling much better now!