My guilt is never having suffered
I’ve been asked a dozen times if I was planning to write something about New Orleans. In fact, I was not. It wasn’t for a lack of interest. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. It is a topic that I am uncomfortable with.It’s a subject I don’t know about, yet am strongly aware of. I feel like I trivialize the suffering each time I discuss it. “Isn’t it horrible,” I proclaim before heading out into the sunshine for my daily bike ride, which I get irritable if I miss. My pressing concern is with a tenacious squeak that I can’t grease into silence.”Can you imagine no food or water, and the heat?!” I lament over French toast and a cup of coffee on the veranda at the Stube.I discuss with my office mates the hopelessness that must come from losing a job for the foreseeable future, nothing to do but wake up in some shelter; bored, scared, unable to even make a plan. Then we head back to our desks. My perspective is that the shock of paying $3.75 for a gallon of gasoline has me pondering what car to purchase next.My birth date, my socioeconomic makeup, and my secluded address have combined to create the perfect calm for my life. I feel guilty.Although people close to me have suffered through great calamities, I’ve experienced them only through the safety of words. I’ve known people who have fought in every war from the Great War through the Iraq conflict. The flu epidemic of 1918 killed more than 600,000 Americans, a few of my ancestors among them. My parents and grandparents survived the Great Depression in abject poverty. I’ve never gone hungry. I’ve never been through a natural disaster. Spending most of my life in this town of little economic, political, or geographic relevance, I have barely noticed the effects of several U.S. recessions and military conflicts occurring during my lifetime. The horrendous aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorist attacks and a tsunami, I’ve seen in pictures. I have grieved over the deaths of loved ones, but I was never without the consolation of my family and friends in the comfort of my own home with a warm meal close at hand. I’ve lived an insulated life here in Aspen, Colorado, USA, where we work at desensitizing ourselves to suffering. To admit that things aren’t perfect here is an unforgivable local sin. Misery is that which we have paid dearly to avoid. The fact that I am not here by mere circumstance is not lost. While being born was out of my control, the rest of my adult life was spent maneuvering my education and jobs so that I could eventually raise my children here. And, I’m not apologizing for that. I am thankful every day.Yet, I can’t help wondering if this self-imposed isolation from the human condition has marginalized me on the side of the page nobody considers. There are the poor, the sick, and the elderly on one side that we don’t acknowledge because we don’t want to believe they exist. But, in sheer numbers they are unavoidably relevant. Am I one of the protected on the other side that the rest of the world can’t relate to? Are my values out of sync with those of my brethren? This scares me. So I watch the news. I read the papers. I peruse updates online. I stare at the gruesome pictures. I imagine what it is like to be there. I talk about it until I believe that I can feel the pain and suffering from this great tragedy. I write about it. Then, realizing that there is no way to know what it’s really like, I try other angles. Gas prices are going to have an impact on all of us! The federal deficit will balloon, inflation will be ignited, we’re headed for recession, or worse! Our government let us down! Nobody’s safe! Global warming is affecting us! This is going to hurt more than we imagined! It’s a form of mental self-flagellation. I induce pain so that I can believe that I am suffering, too. I give money so the world won’t forget me. If I hurt enough over this, actually make myself a part of it, maybe God will spare me from the next tragedy. The child in me believes that it all equals out in the end. It’s not so.The truth is that here in Aspen, I am not a part of the acute pain being felt by hundreds of thousands in the Gulf states. Once again, I’ll probably avoid the brunt of any economic fallout. Even a justification for arranging my sheltered life like I have would be self serving, so I won’t make it.Nonetheless, up here in paradise I am a part of mankind. When a part of us is injured, we must be a part of the healing. The first order is to do what we can to get water and food to our fellow human beings and find shelter for them. It’s a wound. We have to clean it and cover it as quickly as possible to prevent further damage spread by infection. Then the healing can begin. Humankind has been injured in an appendage far removed from here. We don’t feel the cruel pain at the nerve endings that have been severely damaged. We are only aware of it. Nonetheless, the gash will heal more quickly if the entire body is healthy. We have to stay healthy. Healing starts on the edges and moves inward to the deep cuts in the flesh.After the situation in New Orleans is stabilized and the true victims are made as temporarily comfortable as possible, they will look to the rest of the world to see that there is hope for a normal and healthy life ahead again. There will be comfort in seeing that life continues around them, realizing that it will return to them someday.If we’re not too complacent with our good fortune, if we remain cognizant of the true suffering going on around us, if we are careful not to claim others’ pain as our own in an attempt to assuage our fears, we have a role to play in the recovery. We are a refuge. If we foster a pervading atmosphere of love and compassion here in the tranquility, we can emit a ray of hope. As other spared communities do the same, a bright light will eventually shine over the darkness. Life as normal, even our normal, must go on. Roger Marolt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Vagneur: Today’s the big local’s day, even though the celebrating may need to be a bit different this year.