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On Indifference

When I was in high school, I had two activities that I was involved in for all four years: Oral Interp and Debate. For those of you who don't know, Oral Interp is an event wherein one acts out stories by herself, without props or costume. It's oral interpretation of a written story, essentially.

When Debate became more of a priority my senior year, I switched from doing humorous interpretation to an event called Non-Original Oratory. This event, rather than interpreting a story, was essentially the retelling and retooling of a famous speech. The speech that I ran in competitions and eventually went to State with was Elie Weisel's The Perils of Indifference, a speech that Holocaust Survivor Weisel (yes, the author of Night) gave at a White House lecture series in 1999, in front of an audience including Hilary Clinton, the then first lady.

There are portions of his speech that have stuck with me throughout the years. One particular portion deserves to be re-transcribed here:

"Of course, indifference can be tempting -- more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction."

And further on:

"In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response."

There is not much more that I can say that hasn't already been said on the subject of indifference. Indifference is, even more than during the 20th century, the great plague of the 21st. It is the reason behind so many "awareness" campaigns, and so many commercials, fliers, blogs (this one included), and movements.

The crying outside the door is so loud that it is remarkable we can sit down to dinner, scrape our plates clean, and ignore it. We have set up black out curtains on our hearts, not to keep people from seeing in, but to keep any of ourselves getting out. We take the easy path - we decide that we won't change things on the large scale, so we do nothing on the small scale.

We become indifferent. Hardened. Callous. Cold.

And then when something shocks us, when we see the planes hit the twin towers, when we see bombings in downtown cities, when we hear of a friend being robbed while she slept at night...we have no concept of how to react. We have remained indifferent for so long that we no longer have a clue as to how to handle real pain, real suffering.

Remarkably, when something impacts here, on our own soil, we are quick to act. After 9/11, we became the world's most patriotic nation, shouting from the top of the mountains how we wouldn't be defeated, we would take action as a nation and respond to this tragedy. When the Oklahoma city bombing happened, we said the same thing. When our friend has something tragic happen, we rush to their aid, helping in any way we can.

We put a face on the issue, when it happens on our own soil. We lose our indifference.

If you are still tracking with me, I would like to take you a little further.

My goal in life (as I have discovered throughout this journey toward India) is to put a face onto those faceless around us. It is when the suffering lacks human quality that it becomes so easy to ignore. That's why we can ignore statistics about 300 million people in Africa suffering from AIDS, 27 million people in slavery, the great numbers of the homeless and destitute in our own cities.

Jesus chose not to remain indifferent. He made the greatest sacrifice of all, not only in dying upon the cross, but in becoming human in the first place. He chose to take on a physical face, a physical body, to come, to teach, to suffer, and to die, all to put a face on this love that God the Father has extended to us. He, as our great model, calls out indifference, puts his arms around it, and loves it into creating a response. He himself said that he would spit the lukewarm (read: the indifferent) from his mouth. If we are working to eliminate the indifference to suffering in our world, and loving those who are suffering, we are stepping forward onto the path of Jesus, following his model.

Case In Point:

A friend of a friend, Brandt Russo, is attempting to negate some of that indifference. His tshirt company, Can't Ignore the Poor, helps the homeless in the US. And this last week, he has stepped out in faith and is putting a face--his own-- on the suffering of millions of children worldwide who are dying of malnutrition everyday.

Brandt is starving himself.

We all know the statistics of starving children in the world--to repeat them here would be superfluous. We all know that more children go hungry and die everyday than most small towns in the US. We know that by the time our head hits the pillow tonight, 30,000 more will have suffered and die of malnutrition, of not having enough to eat.

And yet we remain almost entirely indifferent.

Brandt has decided to change that by putting a face onto suffering himself, by becoming a sufferer. In solidarity with those children in the world who are without food, Brandt has gone on a hunger strike until $15,500 has been raised for medication to deworm 1,000,000 children. Diseases such as tapeworms and various intestinal problems are why a lot of children are not getting the nutrition they need from the food they are eating. With this medication, these children can eat and get the full benefit of what they are eating, can have those nutrients.

Brandt's strike is not going to end world hunger, but it's more than most of us are doing. He has chosen to step out in faith and love his neighbor by experiencing suffering alongside them. Regardless of whatever your personal feelings toward him may be, you have to admit that he's doing a lot more than most of us ever will. He is acting as our proxy, he is showing us suffering right here and now, and he is doing it to help those who have no recourse.

People said Gandhi was ridiculous, too.

And Martin Luther King, Jr.

And the Judsons--the first American missionaries to India.

But they, like Brandt, stepped out in faith, decided to put a face onto the suffering, and chose to love their neighbor.

Will you?


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