After the clinic at Khalpar, I think about the sea of faces and overall helplessness of what they must feel, waiting in line for Tylenol and anti-itch cream.
Economic poverty is hard to calculate in itself, but “poverty” isn’t strictly economic. There’s situational poverty (or temporary poverty), as compared with those living in absolute poverty or destitution. Other types of poverty include social poverty (lack of family or relationships), educational poverty, as well as civil poverty or lack of human rights and access to healthcare. The United Nations defines poverty as “a lack of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity”6 – in other words, a lack of the fundamental ability to participate in community or society. We do have poverty in the U.S., but truly, not at quite on the same scale.
One of the most beautiful things about India and also the most bewildering and obfuscating is its diversity – economic, cultural, geographic, social. To put it another way, in the West, we take our homogeneity for granted. If you visit California and Kansas, for example, the laws are pretty much the same. The culture may be slightly different, but the language is the same, the basic infrastructure and routines are the same, the bill of rights, etc. In India, one state can be completely different from another – different language, different customs, civil rights, etc. In one state Christian churches are left alone. Two states down, pastors could be burned out of their homes, depending on the village. They are almost mini-countries within themselves, though all of India is united and somehow ruled together.
It is all at once fascinating…and frustrating. The beauty and wildness almost becomes the undoing of social programs. It is hard to reach everyone uniformly. It is hard to unify resources. It is easy, even in a city like Calcutta for millions to fall through the cracks. The opposition to change is disorganization and diversity, not cruelty.
The beauty of the people and their resiliency, however, is inspiring to the world. The strength it takes to persevere, to thrive. The smiles of the Khalpar children who have never known anything other than sorting through garbage and living in a tent.
What are their daydreams, I wonder? What are their games? Their heroes?
When I was three, I had three imaginary friends, taken from my collection of storybooks. My mom said she could always tell when I was up from my afternoon nap – instead of crying like most kids, I would be lying awake in bed, telling stories to the ceiling. And they usually had three main characters – Peter Pan, Jesus and the the Big Bad Wolf. A random combination, I know. My parents didn’t know quite what to make of this, whether I was an imaginative child, or one who would be in therapy by age 6.
Over and over the plot went something like this – Peter Pan was coming to my bedroom window to get us and take us up to Neverland. Jesus was going to meet us there, but he was usually running late because he was helping people. And the Big Bad Wolf was in there somewhere, lurking in the bushes. My mom says I always made a point of telling him I wasn’t afraid of him and he better stay away from me and my family.
When Return of the Jedi came out a year later, and the Big Bad Wolf was replaced with Darth Vader. Honestly, I don’t think I could conceptualize the devil at that point – after all, he was just a red sock puppet with horns and a mustache from Sunday School. Darth Vader, however, was the epitome of evil. He even breathed evil. And so, Peter Pan, Jesus and Darth Vader would march around in my daydreams every afternoon.
I always believed – or maybe I had just seen the end of the Return of the Jedi – that Darth Vader was good inside. A great deal of my plots involved Jesus and I trying to reason with Darth Vader and convince him to behave. Where Peter Pan was during all this, I don’t know – I don’t think he and Tinkerbell did evangelism. He was probably somewhere up in the clouds waiting for us.
When you get older, you realize your favorite childhood characters like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Big Bird and Mickey Mouse are fake, and other characters like George Washington, Michael Jackson and Donald Trump are real. They become more real the older you get. You realize there is a war between good and evil, and that part becomes real too.
The enemy, however, isn’t as obvious in real life as Darth Vader. Rarely is the enemy something as recognizable and cartoonish as it once was. There is a real enemy – Satan – and he uses several tactics to keep us from living out our calling. We all know adulthood is a minefield of problems, choices and frustrations. And while untimely grenades such as alcohol, abuse, sex and drugs can certainly destroy lives, they usually advertise themselves as vices. What is less recognizable are other insidious but equally effective tranquilizers – busyness, exhaustion, self-centeredness, hopelessness.
If I were the enemy and my first round of grenades didn’t work – if those advertised themselves with too many red flags – I would use the mundane. I would keep us so consumed with the immediate and finite that there is little space for God and even less space for others.
I am just as guilty of this as anyone. We know this, we know this, yet it still works. We plow through life, reacting to our circumstances. We are so desperate for a moment’s peace, for relief that we park on our blessings and pitch a tent there. Even the innocent, the just and the most virtuous Christian can be paralyzed like a butterfly in a spider web.
As the enemy knows, you don’t have to completely sink a ship to get it off course – just send a cloud of never-ending fog. You don’t have to kill the soldier, just immobilize him. It’s a brilliant way to paralyze an entire generation, an entire army with no warning signs. Much more subtle than threatening to huff and puff and blow the house down.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and I realize, the enemy to the greatest command isn’t hate – it’s the unexamined life. It’s a barrel of intentions that is never opened. It’s the act of waiting – to graduate high school, to graduate college, to get a job, to get married, to have kids, to get the kids in school, to get the kids out of school, etc. etc.
So what do we do about it? Love God, love people has the power to change the world in four words. But it isn’t specific. And Satan will exploit that.
Am I doing the right thing?
Am I doing enough?
I don’t know what to do.
Maybe that’s not my gift.
I’ll be able to do more later.
Where do I start?
Disorganization. Restlessness. Carelessness.
In the movie The Hunger Games, right before Katniss goes into the arena, Haymitch grabs her by the shoulder and tells her, “Katniss, when you’re in the arena, remember who the real enemy is.”
And Katniss doesn’t understand at first. After all, it’s hard to think straight when you’re dodging hatchets and wrestling teenagers with knives. But later, in the forest, she realizes her enemy is isn’t the set of 23 tributes trying to kill her – it’s the Capitol behind the scenes, manipulating the game.
Haymitch’s words speak to all of us. Remember who the enemy is. Remember that he is silent and will use inactivity or good intention to paralyze the army of God. He will use soul-searching and logic and reasoning and holy waiting – anything to keep us from loving God and/or people in the moment.
He will fool us into thinking there has to be a golden “call” or summons. He will make our spiritual diet consist of memes, tweets and an occasional visit to a small group potluck. He will encourage us to park on “nice” and stop there. He will separate us from the world’s need and the power of God.
The adult in me knows all this…but sometimes has a hard time following it in the middle of a thousand distractions. Deep inside, my heart longs to be part of the bigger story. It longs to be a part of India – of helping humanity.
It longs for the days when things were simple – it longs for afternoons with Jesus and Peter Pan.
Because that little girl is still there, somewhere inside me, shaking her fist and rebuking the Big Bad Wolf.