Sunday, March 16, 2014

Global Development and Being Human

I was recently asked to pen an article on global development and being human. The task really got me thinking. Here are my thoughts…

When I was approached to share my thoughts on global development and being human my initial reaction was sure, no problem--that should be simple enough. But now, as I sit in front of the blank screen, I realize I’ve never really thought about why I’m so passionate about global development or how this relates to being human. On the surface it seems the answer should be straightforward. If I have the capability to reach out and make this world a better place for humanity, if I have the power to reduce another human’s suffering and increase their quality of life, why wouldn’t I? But this doesn’t get to the bottom of what motivates one human to help another.

My attitude towards human suffering and what we can do about it has taken quite a ride as I’ve journeyed from a privileged childhood through medical school and into a career as an eye surgeon. One of my first important lessons about suffering and what we can do about it came when I was eighteen and fresh out of high-school. A strong-willed bull-headed woman from the church I grew up in got it in her head that one way or another she was going to introduce me to the mission field. She schemed and finagled until I found myself on a plane to the Dominican Republic where I would spend a few weeks with a missionary couple who were involved in the construction of a hospital. A week prior to my departure an elderly lady hobbled up to me after church, reached into her faded handbag, and extracted a wad of dollar bills. “It’s not much, but you take this and put it to good use,” she told me. As I shoved the bills into my pocket, I thought what good can I possibly do with fourteen dollars? I got my answer two weeks later when I encountered a twenty year old Haitian immigrant on death’s doorstep due to septic shock. The hospital bill and antibiotics that saved her life cost fourteen dollars. That’s right. Anyone can make a difference. No matter our age or the extent of our resources.

As important as that lesson was, it only begins to scratch the surface. Global development is not about rushing around the world rescuing individuals in dire straits. It’s about digging deeper. It’s about asking the hard questions and finding even harder solutions. Why was this Haitian immigrant trapped on a Dominican sugarcane plantation in slave-like conditions? Why was it impossible for her to afford treatment? Why was a young woman so ill in the first place? The answers to these questions are buried in centuries of sordid history, greed, corruption, and countless atrocities—all of which were the direct result of human choices. Humans did this. Humans created this mess. And we’re still creating it with a frenzy in every corner of the globe. Global development is how we begin to right all this wrong.

I tend to shy away from black and white statements, but with global development I do feel it is fair to say that if I am not part of the solution, then I am part of the problem. Because I am human, I have a choice. I can choose to contribute to solutions, or I can choose not to. No other creature has this option.

So why do I choose to help?

A quote from the compelling book Mountains Beyond Mountains: the quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A man who would cure the world summarizes what comes as close as possible to a simple answer to this not so simple question.

“That's when I feel most alive…when I'm helping people.”

On the surface this statement appears to have a selfish motive—I help people because it makes me feel good. Not exactly. I help people because I’m addicted to helping people. Trust me, once you start, it’s difficult to stop. It’s difficult to stop because helping others is rewarding. It’s rewarding because it’s the sunny side of being human. It makes you feel alive.

But like any addiction, trying to help people has its pitfalls and dangers. It’s possible to become so consumed with global development that you begin to neglect yourself or your family and relationships. It’s also all too easy to create more problems with your well-intended solutions. Global development is not an endeavor that one should just dive into. It requires careful planning, forethought, and active analysis throughout. Have you ever heard the little story about the boy on the beach after the storm? Thousands of starfish have been washed ashore and he’s tossing them back into the water one at a time. An old man comes up to him and asks him what he’s doing—there’s no way he can possibly save them all. The boy picks up another and tosses it into the ocean saying well I just saved that one. This little anecdote annoys me to no end. The old man was right. The boy was going about it all wrong. The boy should’ve run back to his village to gather his family and friends. Some of these people could have gone to the beach while others worked to spread the word and enlist even more volunteers. In a matter of a few hours they could have mobilized hundreds of helping hands. Instead of saving a few dozen starfish, they might have been able to save them all.

And that is why I’m taking the time to share my thoughts on global development and being human. I don’t want to be that boy on the beach. I’m hoping and praying these words find their way to someone who is ready to get involved. Someone who wants to be part of the solution. Someone who is prepared to really feel alive.

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