Everyone knows the parable of the starfish. Some of us even have a framed print of the parable, maybe a shadow box with an actual dried starfish, hanging in the guest bathroom. It’s a simple tale, even a little worn with familiarity, but the moral of the story resonates with me. The scope of suffering in this world can be overwhelming. With so many in need, it is all too easy to shut down and do nothing. And yet, I want to make a difference to at least one.
When I was a child, the age my children are now, my mom didn’t let us get away with doing nothing. By the time I hit middle school, I was a somewhat experienced volunteer, not because I was an especially altruistic kid, but because my mom insisted that summer breaks include more than simply lazing about or jumping off the high dive. I remember summer work sessions at the local library doing something with the microfilm machine for hours on end, something that gave me headaches, unfortunately, and I remember volunteering at a local nursing home, changing water pitchers and towels in residents’ rooms, chatting with people in the group room, and pushing residents during wheelchair dances. I remember feeling useful.
But in later years (read: my adult life), my volunteer efforts have been all too often paltry.
I sometimes feel a nagging – part guilty conscience, part spiritual prompting – that I need to do more, to see more starfish, if you will, but like many people, my rescue efforts are heartfelt, yes, but sometimes infrequent or rather lacking in staying power. I felt the nagging very strongly during July 2000, the same month I attended my ten year high school reunion, an event that is practically guaranteed to nudge one toward soul searching, but which was not actually the cause of my epiphany. It wasn’t the tour of my high school, but instead a New Yorker profile of American physician and unforgettable visionary Paul Farmer, “The Good Doctor,” that had me awash in an emotional indictment.
So mind-expanding was the story of the life of this man that I spoke of nothing else for several days. I carefully tore his picture from my magazine and taped it to my closet wall so that I could see his face every day when I got dressed and thus be reminded of his indefatigable energy and noble goodness and, I hoped, moved to action. A few years later, I read the book about Farmer’s work in Haiti, Mountains Beyond Mountains (written, as was the article, by Tracy Kidder). It too inspired. Maybe your book club read it? If so, you know what I’m talking about! The book carefully details more of Farmer’s amazing work in the poorest part of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere; it shares his public health as social justice paradigm; it describes the way he and his organization, Partners in Health, radiate health outward; it records Farmer’s efforts to combat poverty and starvation, his beliefs as a healer that health care is a human right.
The book also contributed to my own personal canon this verse from the gospel according to Paul (Farmer). As he told Kidder, “For me, an area of moral clarity is: you’re in front of someone who’s suffering and you have the tools at your disposal to alleviate that suffering or even eradicate it, and you act.”
Areas of moral clarity. Situations without gray. Moments when doing something is called for and possible. No angst necessary, only action.
Amen and amen.
Farmer so effectively identified A.M.C.s in Haiti and then alleviated and eradicated suffering in the district surrounding the PIH clinic there that he began to receive global attention. In addition to his work in Haiti and his mighty fundraising and educational efforts in the United States, Farmer consulted around the world (helping to curb tuberculosis outbreaks in Russian prisons, for example) and now calls Rwanda, the previously war-torn, densely populated African nation that convinced him to come and help them build a national health care system, home. (I hope Kidder writes another book, but for now, here’s the 411.)
As I read the following scriptural passage during last week’s Sunday School lesson, seated on a comfy periwinkle upholstered pew, I was reminded of the good doctor’s work and the need to be involved in good works myself. In Alma 62:41, we are told “… and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.” It was the “their” that grabbed my attention, I think. The pronoun is referring to the people who need to be humbled, yes, and that’s always how I’ve read the phrase, but if we sprinkle a little vague pronoun reference magic (which doesn’t actually exist; please don’t misunderstand or I might have my grammar license revoked) on the verse, another meaning shines forth, the notion that other people’s afflictions can help soften and humble us, maybe even compel us into action.
When we recognize the afflictions of others, whether that ‘other’ is the ravaged Louisiana coastline or young people, many of them gay, taking their lives as a result of bullying or elderly folks who are both hungry and lonely or school kids who don’t get enough to eat on the weekends or victims of the Haitian earthquake or our next door neighbors we open our eyes to these areas of moral clarity. When we are humble, we see. When we see, we can act.
So how do we know which starfish to pick up? Look for A.M.C.s. It’s how Dr. Farmer is changing the world.
p.s. I love the idea that each of us has eyes for different areas of moral clarity. What are some needs you’ve felt nudged to fill, some areas of suffering you’ve been drawn to alleviate?