I’ve been working on this post for a few weeks and thinking about if I wanted to post it. After the events yesterday, I think it is pretty relevant. Though, as friends have pointed out, bombings like the one that shook Boston occur the world over without provoking such a reaction. I think that’s the scariest thing: that we just ignore atrocities or only give them a cursory glance because they happen in a ‘conflict zone’. Events like what happened at the Boston Marathon, on the perceived ‘safety’ of our native soil, serve as a bitter reminder of a reality that many people around the world face daily. That by no means lessens the evil of what happened yesterday, but it does deserve some reflection.
So, here’s the post…
Several months ago, when I was rushing through Vietnam, I had an experience that really shook me up. While my friend Paula and I were on an awesome tour of the Mekong Delta area, we got off to explore a market for a bit. As we were getting off the bus, our tour guide nonchalantly directed our attention to the sidewalk and remarked, “Look, it’s a victim of Agent Orange.”
Agent Orange was a chemical agent deployed by the United States as a weapon against Viet-cong forces during the Vietnam War. It was meant to deforest areas and ruin crops, both eliminating cover and a food supply for enemy forces. It did that and more. There were horrible side effects caused by toxins in the compound which were suffered by people in targeted areas; deformities much like the one I found myself looking at.
I looked out the window of the bus without even thinking, and found myself staring at one of the most disfigured people I’ve ever seen. The man’s head was grotesquely swollen to probably twice its natural size. His skin was discolored and stretched over tumorous lumps of flesh. Facial features like his eyes and mouth looked like crude holes cut in a papier maché skull. This weapon had taken the human form and warped it almost beyond recognition.
It wasn’t the man’s appearance which has haunted me, however. It was my reaction to it. You want to know what I felt when I saw him? It wasn’t pity, it wasn’t compassion. It was horror and disgust. These emotions were immediately followed by a deep shame. How could I disregard the person beneath that disfigurement? Was I really so shallow?
What I saw and my reaction to it got me thinking. Why had I felt the way I did? Why did I find it so difficult to see past the man’s physical deformities? Part of the reason was the simple fact that I had never seen anything similar before. I was born and raised in a nice area of Washington state and have spent nearly my entire life in first world countries. I’d never really been exposed to something quite like the Agent Orange victim before. My reaction was my mind’s knee-jerk reaction to maintain one thing: my ignorance.
I think this ignorance of horrors which we love to cloak ourselves in is one of the biggest obstacles we face in changing the current state of the world we live in. It’s so easy to carry on when we hear some horrible story on the news. We sigh, shake our heads, then carry on with our daily routines. If it’s not something that affects us personally, we relegate it to the ‘bad things happen’ bin and let it pass us by. Apathy towards evil is one of the reasons atrocities are committed the world over as the majority of us sit passively by.
I strongly believe a key element in the solution to this problem is travel. It’s one thing to hear about a band of armed rebels from the Philippines taking over a small Malaysian town or sectarian violence breaking out between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar when you are in the comfort of your native country. It’s entirely different to have friends who live in those areas or to have walked the same streets now choked with rubble and stained with blood. It’s different when you’re confronted by children with limbs blown off by landmines in Cambodia or victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Travel acquaints us with these far-off places and breaks down the barriers we use to divide ourselves. When we interact with people from different cultures, creeds, and circumstances, they cease to become statistics and become what they actually are: humans, same as us. People who possess the same needs, dreams, and flaws as we do. Apathy disappears and is replaced with an empathy for the plight of others.
It’s hard to hold onto a belief that people who follow a certain religion are inherently bad when one of them welcomes you into his home with a cup of tea and an enthusiastic smile. Or to think of a person who supports a different political system as an enemy when you’re working together to survive in a harsh climate.
All of us need to be aware of the things that go on in our world, things which affect our brothers and sisters far and wide. We need to be shocked and horrified by the atrocities which are committed on a regular basis. We should even feel shame that it’s taken us this long to open our eyes to the realities which make up our world.
All that is pointless, however, if it doesn’t catalyze a change. Start small. Get rid of prejudices, indifference, and hate. Embrace differences in others, encourage them, love a little more. Lead by example. Then, if you’re willing and able, do something to make a change.