Americans are a predictable species.
Plop one of us down in a city dump on the other side of the world and the same thing will happen every time. Eyebrows will knit together in a sure sign of pity. Top lip will contort in disgust at the smell.
As birds of prey prowl in circles overhead and mothers and their children pick and prod their way through refuse, the American may cry, may walk away, may stand silent and motionless…but she will always be shocked. This can only happen once.
Make this trip a second time and you’d feel no less empathy…but no shock either. Shock is the product of surprise, of not knowing, of only hearing and studying without actually experiencing. But we can’t be shocked by the same thing twice. Never again.
And you’d miss shock. You may feel ashamed at your inability to feel a shred of it. Shock is an excuse, wraps around us like a bulletproof vest, shields us from responsibility. It absolves and exonerates: “Oh, I had no idea.”
But without shock we’re vulnerable.
To regret: What have I done abut this since?
To anger: This is still happening??
To doubt: Will this never end?
But we can choose to wrap ourselves in something new, something more powerful than the thickest layer of shock. It’s a hard choice to make, one made again and again – second by second.
Choose to see more than the mountains of trash. See the children without shoes, the mother with pencil thin breasts digging for metal at the dump. See the games the children play, the dimples formed under a layer of dirt, the snuggle-toothed grins, the chubby hand holding on tight to the doll in the pink dress. See beyond the poverty.
Choose to listen beyond the squawks of predators swirling overhead. Listen to the mother’s story, how she got here and where she’s going. Listen to what she prays for her children at night, what she dreams for them. Listen to her gratitude for this work in this place, for teachers who are forming her girls into literate young women, for neighbors who are like family, for tin cans and plastic hidden treasures.
Choose to notice. And you’ll discover new mysteries and, with them, new questions.
About joy: Can I play with you?
About love: What’s your favorite thing about being a mom to these girls?
About community: Will you pray for me, please?
About helping: What’s working here?
The space left by yesterday’s shock can be slowly filled with awe.
It’s our choice. But not much of one, is it?
Shock is gone for good. So what next? Remain naked and vulnerable to regret, anger and doubt? Or really see and listen and be filled with awe instead. Again and again.
I’m leading a group of bloggers headed to Uganda soon. We’re posting our stories – about all we see and hear – at compassionbloggers.com/uganda14 January 27-31.