Why Awareness Leaves a Dissatisfactory Taste in the Mouth

This could come across as anti-American. But that’s okay. It’s after the Fourth of July.

I, in my own way, am somewhat hesitant to even try to do what I love, which is to write. Residing within me is this notion that what I want to do will only contribute to the problem at hand. If I do end up writing books aimed at examining Christianity in America and hypothesizing how to return it back to its true roots (a.k.a., Christ-focused, not Puritanical), that could very well do nothing. In other words, my life should not be filled with writing. It should be consumed with trying to live a life of integrity, and if something worth writing comes out of that, then I’ll do it. I can very well say in words that living a life of restoration is important, but if I don’t try to bring about restoration with how I live out each day, then all of this is pointless.

My unease is born out of how creating awareness of a dilemma can often only steepen the problem one was initially working to highlight. So, my life’s literary work can not be set out towards “creating awareness,” and if I feel like it’s beginning to take such a turn and that my days occupy just writing awareness pieces, then my life will only amount to a fraction of what it should be.

Look at how fashionable awareness is. People walk around with shirts, coffee cups, tote bags, and whatever else they can get their hands on that sports the red AIDS label bookended by curvaceous parentheses. You see, this person—this stalwart of humanity—cares. She purchased a caffeinated drink, the name of which is so specialized and über-specific its length rivals a Tolstoy novel, and she is changing the world. This is what purchasers of steaming or iced beverages can tell themselves, and because of this facility with which they bathe themselves in social consciousness, they achieve a level of peace of mind that is wholly dangerous: the conviction that they are effecting change by shopping when they are, in fact, only collecting the change from their purchases. These people are now perfectly content to go about their day with a mind free from concerns because they helped do their part.

Maybe the opiate of the masses is now awareness.

Because awareness is not a solution, but we’ve caused it to be one. It’s a means to an end, not an end itself, and yet, we’ve reached this point where peoples’ end game is realized upon arriving at a destination that consists of merely being informed. The term “end game” itself is a misnomer because it presupposes we will somehow “arrive” or “finish” the task. But there will always be work to do. There will always be the poor, the sick, the hated. And so when we hear someone say something like, “Yeah, I know what’s going on in the Congo. See? I bought this shirt from The Gap,” no wonder it’s so disappointing.

It’s not that awareness is wrong or bad, but what we’ve done in response to it has caused it to veer in the wrong direction. Maybe we have become so inundated with black-and-white photographs of swollen African bellies and homeless Americans that we are no longer touched by it. Our response becomes, “That’s just the way it is. Unfortunate, but reality.” For being a culture with a climate in love with change and progress we’re eerily comfortable with the unjust status quo of a group of people living in the back alleys, whether here or in Sudan.

It takes seeing someone as genuinely human before any sort of legitimate good can take place. Photographs can aid in this but will always fall short. We have the five senses for a reason. Until we are standing next to this person, who is full flesh and bone like we are, we will never be moved to let our hearts ache for him. Without seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing him, our sentiments and actions will never occupy a desperately needed form of sincere grace and truth. My own life is an example of this. I will readily state that African aid should be a high priority, but even so, I’ve never been to Africa. When my friends who have been there say the same thing, there is a gargantuan disparity between the amount of conviction and pain behind those words as they come out of their mouths. Documentaries and photographs are wonderful places to start and much needed forms of journalism to inform. But they, like my desire to write, possess the dangerous potential of stopping at simply telling people stories.

The reason the documentary Born Into Brothels is so compelling is not because it tells a heart-wrenching story (although it does do that); it’s power is derived from the fact that Zana Briski is actually trying to do her part to help these kids. It moves us. It reminds us that such things can be done. Good can be brought about. If her documentary were just about filming children in squalor, we’d leave the theatre with a bad taste in our mouths because, in reality, she’s just making a spectacle of them for her film and prostituting those Calcutta children before they even begin actually working in the brothels. Here is what’s apparent: until we immerse ourselves in their world and work alongside these people, it will all just ring false. That immersion, though, requires a high amount of selflessness, a measure of self-sacrifice which leaves no room for the superficial shirts, coffee cups, and tote bags.

What if instead of spending that money on monopolistic “aid” at Starbucks we saved our expendable cash for a plane ticket over to the country our products so lovingly display and decry as wanting? There are plenty of aid groups, mission teams, and the like who are always needing more volunteers. That’s awareness being put to its true calling. The opposite is frightening.

For example, if I am aware that Christians are not treating homosexuals with love and justice but do nothing on my part to go out of my way to try and right that wrong, then I am only contributing to the problem and am awash in false, diaphanous advertising. I am an exterior containing nothing beneath the surface, and if what’s within is only focused on the body encompassing it, then my life is a servant unto itself, and that kind of absorption will cover every aspect of my existence.

And I can’t help but think that the same thing can and does happen now. Picture it. A group of intellectuals are sitting around a café table discussing the great idiosyncrasies of the current cultural climate and the problems of the world at large. Being global is chic. Hop on that train, you beat poet wannabe. You’ve seen these types before. They will wax and wane poetics on how the world is moving about in a certain fashion and how change is on the horizon as they sip their drink (a drink that will overcome AIDS, you know). They’ve read countless articles and other news blogs on the internet to learn about the AIDS crisis. They’re very knowledgeable about what’s going on, and I don’t doubt that they are informed. But there’s a common thread in their conversations. Not one of them is espousing personal experience. There is none from which to draw. Apparently books are enough? They’re good, but no . . . not enough.

I don’t want to join in on these conversations. I willingly admit my ignorance because I am not ashamed of the fact that I know absolutely nothing. (I believe this is the first step towards learning: admitting you’re clueless.) Just in the past two years I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know some Rwandan students at my university, and all but one of them lost at least one of their parents in the genocide. I would much rather sit down with them and listen to what they have to say rather than get information from some white guy with a hemp bag. Those Rwandans have lived it and possess the personal side. That’s how you learn something. Get the intimate aspect of it.

Or going back to AIDS, I would much rather talk to my roommate who spent five months in the heart of Africa working in different clinics throughout the continent and just recently returned from a survey trip to Rwanda. Or I’d rather talk to my brother who just got back from a one-month trip to Swaziland and hear him share how he learned that some of the girls at the orphanage have been raped so many times that they’re now incontinent or will have trouble walking for the rest of their lives. I don’t enjoy hearing these things, but I need to know them.

And then if (no . . . when) all of these “discussions” are not enough (because they should never be enough), then perhaps . . . just maybe . . . I will be inspired to get off my sofa and actually go do something. True, I am only one person and won’t do a whole lot on my own, but rally a group of close friends with the same passion for furthering human rights, and that little something we can do will at least make a difference in a few peoples’ lives. I do not believe this “something” is buying T-shirts, but unfortunately consumerist capitalism dictates otherwise and is what pervades, and it may very well ruin many solid, well-intentioned ideas.

For example, I love the concept of the TOMS shoes organization, but given the culture I occupy, I can’t help but be skeptical at its potential for longevity (note: I desperately hope I’m wrong). You see, it’s trendy to care, and these shoes are especially hip. Smooth, sleek, slip-on, and form-fitted, they’re perfect for this society. But if TOMS suddenly become untrendy, then by default, so will providing free shoes for needy children across the globe. This tit-for-tat mindset makes me scratch my head and wonder how selfless people really are. What if TOMS had a deal where your fifty-dollar purchase put two pairs of shoes on two kids’ feet, rather than a pair for the buyer and a pair for a kid? The business never would’ve gotten off the ground. Heaven forbid we do some sort of act requiring one hundred percent of the giving to come from us. Charity is conditional. Perhaps love is, too.

And it will stay that way as long as we decide that our compassion can take place long distance through the purchase of a paper-thin graphic tee. Nobody ever changed anybody’s circumstances on the holistic level by throwing money at them from afar and not investing in their life with their breath and blood.

Much love.

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