September 20, 2010

Survivor Guilt

Survivor guilt.  Oh God.  Who am I kidding?  I didn't "survive" anything.  I didn't live through an earthquake.  I'm sitting here in my kitchen which is painted the happiest shade of yellow and listening to the hum of my refrigerator that has ice in the door.  And there is a stove and a dishwasher and clean water running out of the faucet.  I don't starve on a daily basis.  My cabinets are full of enough food to feed the whole neighborhood.  I don't dodge men in the streets with machine guns on my way to fetch water for my family. I don't live in fear that I will be brutally raped in my own home or that my children will die from a mosquito bite or from hunger because I can't provide for them.  

So why, seven months after returning from Africa do I still feel like I "survived" something?  Those seven days in Congo gave me a glimpse.  Just a glimpse.  But that glimpse shook me to my core.  The images I saw there haunt me when I close my eyes like a ghost hiding in the corner.  The faces of the dying children I held there wake me up at night and call out to me.  They say, "What are you doing for us?  Can you find someone who wants me?  I need a mom.  I'm hungry."  And then I wake up and I am in my cozy house, surrounded by things that make my life easy and convenient.  How do I live with that?  How can I not look around at the excesses in my life and in our society and be anything but disgusted?

Those seven days changed my life forever, and not always in a good way.  Those seven days have brought on fits of guilt that no amount of prayer, medication, or reasoning can take away.  And that is why I feel like I've survived something.

I look around at my life.  I look at my bank account.  I look at my chubby cheeked children.  I look at their schools.  Hell, I even look at our roads full of potholes and even in their worst state- they are better beyond anything that I would have ever found in Congo.  And the injustice of it all breaks me down.  It makes me sick.  It makes me question everything.  When I throw food away, I want to cry.  When I complain about how my health insurance didn't cover a certain medication, I want to smack myself. When I complain about how my daughter's free education is too easy for her, I hear myself and want to cringe. Because how does this even begin to compare with life on the other side of the world?  How dare I complain when there are children starving.  How dare I feel inconvenienced when there are people in Africa (or Haiti, or South America, or countless impoverished places) who walk days to see the one doctor available for thousands of people if they are lucky?  How do I justify my feelings when there are children who would die for the opportunity and luxury of going to school instead of spending hours a day fetching fire wood and buckets of dirty water?

The truth is, I feel disappointed in myself.  The week I spent in Africa made me question everything I thought I knew about life. Before I went, I wanted it to change me.  I wanted to come back and figure out how to live simply- to let the extraneous clutter around me go.  To let the drama go.  To figure out how to focus on the small things and how to live in a state of gratitude and thankfulness.  But then I got back and I found myself just wishing that I could "shake" the Africa off of me. I wanted to go back to my normal life where despair and hopelessness were just ideas in the abstract instead of things that I was actually confronted with. Because living as an entitled American is so easy.  What is hard is living the life we were meant to live in service to others.

What I saw scared me.  It scared me that I couldn't "unsee" the things that give me nightmares.  I went from wishing for that mountaintop experience to trying to survive it.  Because seeing poverty like that- it breaks you down.  It would be easier to just forget it.  However, I don't feel like we are called to live cozy lives.  I feel like we are called to step out of our comfort zones and be a voice for the voiceless.  The truth is, though, that I just don' really know what that looks like and all of my attempts just seem futile.

Being in Africa broke down my faith in ways I never imagined that it could.  Seeing the suffering made me question my God.  I found myself, and after all this time, still find myself saying, "God- where were you in Congo?  Where were you when I was holding those dying babies?  Where were you when I saw the starving children combing through the garbage on the streets?  Where were you when I saw the grown men drinking out of the sewers because there was no clean water?  Where were you!?"  Everything in my being wants to hear, "... Megan... I was in those beans that hundreds of people bought for you to deliver.  I was in those cans of formula that people from all over sent for you to take.  I was in the hugs given to those children in their last moments.  I was in those smiles and giggles the orphanage children gave while they were playing with balloons for the first time."  I want to hear it.  I so do. But I don't hear it. And even if I did, it doesn't seem like enough.  It's never going to be enough.

And in that longing to be enough, do enough and say enough, I'll keep trying to make sense of what I saw.  Because I know it all happened for a reason.  I know that part of it is reliving it and sharing it and spreading the word.  And part of it is trying to still learn how to live a life of gratitude and thanksgiving.  And part of it is just surviving.  Because some days, when the enormity of the injustice of it all just weighs you down, all you can do is breathe in and out, and pray and hope and do what YOU can do to make a difference... and hope that the tiny, inadequate stone that you throw out into the water  makes ripples beyond your wildest expectations.

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


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