Saturday, January 26, 2008

A kid and an orange

A kid offered to buy me an orange today. I met him at Lumley beach as I was juggling with some other kids. He was with a group of friends of his, who were pushing him around in a wheelchair. When he came over to watch me, he crawled out of the wheelchair and slowly pulled himself across the sand - his right arm and leg inverted, twisting around themselves like a poorly formed vine. We tossed the ball back and forth, with him throwing the ball into various juggling patterns. He explained how he was living on the street around the bus station along Wallace Johnson street; he no longer had any family because most had been killed in the war or died of diseases. Beyond his fellow street kids, wheeling him around in his chair, he had no one. And then he offered to buy me an orange because he had some money.

When I was in Mali, as a UN employee, I “earned” DSA (Daily Subsistence Allowance) for resting. I earned more money by taking a vacation than these children may make in a lifetime; I earned more money for one day of “rest and recuperation” than families here make in a year. I came here to fight against injustice; sometimes I wonder if I’m part of the source of it. We talk of income inequality back in America, but we have no idea of what it looks like. The UN perpetuates one of the most glaring systems of income inequalities in the world, and I am the beneficiary. And while we maintain our positions of wealth, a poor street kid offered to buy me an orange.

In Mali, I thought a lot about one of Thomas Aquinas’s arguments, and as the children stripped off their old and ragged clothes and headed to play in the ocean, I thought of it again. Aquinas, in contrast to Nozick or Rand, argued that right to property or ownership was based less on possession than need. That a rich person may possess great wealth but that person had less right to that wealth, that food, that life-saving bread than a poor person, a poor and hungry child. He argued that in a sense, it was the wealthy that were stealing from the poor simply by not sharing the possessions they had. I have no interest now in parsing the philosophical merit of this argument, or dissecting the practical policy or economic implications of following the logical conclusion of this argument through to the end. Only sitting in the hot sun on Lumley beach, the sky filled with the harmattan haze, the children frolicking naked in the waves, a poor street child pulling his inverted and twisted body over the sand, I couldn’t help but feel there was at least a seed of truth to Aquinas’s claim.

After spending a few hours with them, I ended up doing what everyone else does, and what you‘re forced to do a hundred times in a country like Sierra Leone. I walked away, heading out into the long stretching beach before me - this slice of paradise, and turned my back to the least of these.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reflections from the past

I was just reading some entries from a brief blog I kept in Princeton. I put them up now because the sentiment still resonates with me, and I wrote it better then than I could do now.



at the end of the day, i want justice; i want be the voice of the voiceless; i want to do what's right

at the end of the day, i want to be happy

i wonder sometimes if those things are incompatible....

1/20/04, 10:01

sometimes i think that the hardest thing about believing in humanity's potential is being constantly reminded how far short we fall of it.... perhaps, an idealist isn't someone who believes in an ideal world, but someone who refuses to lower his values, refuses to abandon the ideal even when it's betrayed by those around him...

there are 70,000 child soldiers in burma

last year, 10,000 children were abducted and forced to become soldiers in the Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army

in 1994, we watched genocide unfold in rwanda, and witnessed the fall of Srebrenica

11/30/03, 4:27 pm

my dad brought me "the watchmen" on friday, and i reread most of it again last night. there's something about that story that always gets to me. i have often wanted to walk from this path that i have chosen, longing for some easier road, to be able to close my eyes to the world's dark underbelly. but i can't. and even if i could, i would never choose to do it. once a man has faced the truth in all its forms, he can never turn back.... sometimes i ask myself why i fight for the rights of strangers. watching mehdi zana speak about his eleven years in torture, knowing that his wife was probably going through something similar; i was able to formulate what i had been feeling and thinking for so long.

if someone i loved was suffering or being tortured, i would want some random stranger to do something, anything to try to make a difference. how can i ask anything less of myself? i am that random stranger to so many people.



i suppose i feel talkative today. sitting alone in the basement of a deserted robertson hall. i just reflected on jacob landau's eerie pictures about man's inhumanity to man. maybe i shall go looking for beauty later today...

11:25 am

beauty is present in the simplest of things

"in the depth of winter, i finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." - albert camus

11/12/03, 3:29 am

it's another all-nighter in Friend. the issue of human rights in liberia lies before me. i wonder sometimes why i pour over these human rights document, learning the stories of unnamed women being gang-raped, left in some abandoned village, bleeding from their vaginas. or of child soldiers pumped with "bubbles" to make them brave and strong as they can engage in some horrible, random atrocity. or of soldiers dressed in wedding dresses and flowing colorful wigs, amputating and collecting limbs to acquire some reward from their commanders. what is it that makes us stare into the heart of darkness? what is it that allows us to still survive despite the horror? is it simply schopenhauer's irrational, all-pervasive, irresistable "will to live," a wild dionysian ethic pulsing through our veins, a Karamazov thirst for life? how can we stare at beauty after seeing such horrors? doesn't the contrast with the beauty make the horror too terrible to bear? but how can we help but stare at beauty after living in such darkness? needing something to cleanse our souls of the terrible filth of reality? how can we maintain faith in humanity seeing it so degraded? how can we lose hope when we see the good that people can do? "Bad is so bad that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good that we feel certain that evil could be explained."

it's so late that's early.... i've been staring in the shadows for so long, sometimes i wonder how my eyes will adjust when they see light again. but i want to face these demons, i want to believe the world is beautiful despite everything; i want to be able to proclaim the beauty of world, not out of ignorance or fear of facing reality, but because i have seen it in all its heart-rending horror and all its breath-taking wonder.

it's late. and i need to focus my mind on negotiating some path through problems of terror in some far off land..... i've been thinking of this quote from The Thin Red Line recently: "what difference do you think one man can make in all this madness?" i don't know. but i want to find out.

About me:
In High school and at Princeton, one could easily chalk my career as a success with a solid academic record and impressive extracurricular resume. Like most students, I could list my accomplishments as I have done and fool myself into thinking that they really mean something important, but I don't think that they do. My success is not defined by those things. My focus throughout high school and Princeton has not been acquiring awards or recognition. Despite the due care that I put in all my works, laboring over every word in a paper, obsessing over each nuance of the guitar string, or learning the precise angle for a drop shot, it is life that I have tried to invest the most care into. My final work, my final project is simply the life I live.

When Buddha was asked who he was, they said: "Are you a God?" He said, "No." "Are you an angel?" "No," he replied again. "But then what are you?" He said simply, "I am awake." I have often longed to wake up, to see the world with an un-obscured vision, to slice through all the distractions of existence and to begin to truly see the form and logic pervading all things. I do not believe that humans are destined for intellectual or moral slumber. I do not believe that we are unable to move the world and move ourselves. We are so busy making excuses for our failures; we are so willing to abnegate our responsibility, to relinquish our ability to change ourselves. We often forget that life is an art; we must take due care to live properly and study the precepts for living a good life.

For the past several years, I have studied human rights violations, pouring over heart-rending accounts of slaughter and destruction.

Why? Because if any of my friends were being beaten or raped or tortured, I would have a problem with someone standing by and doing nothing about it. If this is true, then seeing the immensity of evil in this world; I cannot with clear conscience stand by with utter indifference in the face of such abject suffering.

Why? Because when I say that the world is beautiful, I do not wish to say it because I am ignorant and unable to face the darkest corners of reality.

Why? Because if we wish to know truth, then we cannot pick which truth we wish to see, for there is only one truth, one reality, one world, and it is simply up to us whether we wish to face it or run away to cower in fear of a reality we are unable to face.