How should we behave in the face of suffering?

The Zimbabwean recently published a letter by Trevor Grundy who was ‘amazed' that some people had a wonderful time at the Elephant Hills Hotel in Victoria Falls. I didn't read the offending article although I agree that 'young ebony skinned maidens' are a bit over the top!&

nbsp; But Mr Grundy also seems to suggest that to spend money and enjoy oneself in Zimbabwe is to be oblivious to the effect that this government has had on the tourist industry and every other aspect of our economy.
It’s an interesting point – because there are people who seem to be concerned about the situation only in so far as it affects their personal pleasure. But is it really so, or does it just appear that way?
The first time I was confronted with these uncomfortably juxtaposed realities was in Chile in the 1970’s. The Allende government was in power and inflation was well over 1000%.
From Santiago airport vast shanty towns lined both sides of the road, mostly boarded up so we couldn’t see them. People queued everywhere for everything and the extent of the urban poverty was worse than anything I’d ever seen.
Santiago also had the best nightclub I’d ever been to anywhere in the world. We drank a very good Chilean sparkling wine, ate fresh oysters. Had Mr Grundy seen me then he may well have thought that I hadn’t noticed anything.
Chile wasn’t a comfortable experience. It was a lesson not only in different realities but also the desperate need for people to eat, drink and have fun when times are hard.
To write about and use the Elephant Hills Hotel if you can afford it may help keep you sane in this insane situation. It also helps those who cling precariously to jobs in an almost defunct industry.
And yes the uncomfortable truth is that the money spent would have bought thousands of bars of soap for the thousands of Zimbabweans who have scabies and who can no longer afford soap. But another uncomfortable truth is that the poor are always with us. The only difference in Zimbabwe is that their ranks grow all the time, they’re now right outside the gate. Most uncomfortable of all is that what has made them poor should never have happened. That their poverty is a direct result of poor governance should make us angry. But anger forever projected outwards to what is wrong is less effective than anger used to do what Adam Michnik chief architect of Poland’s Solidarity Movement suggests:
“…start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.”
This society of ours is riddled with blame and indeed there is much that is worthy of blame. But the danger with blame is self-righteousness. When we make ‘the other’ bad we tend to automatically make ourselves good.
We should not close our eyes before suffering. This is not easy to do in Zimbabwe today because it means to look into the eyes of the four-year-old girl who begs at the traffic lights and ask her name. It’s not about handing her money with our eyes closed or pretending that we can’t see her. She needs to know that we care more than she needs our money.
The disaster that has befallen our country is barely tolerable to see or hear about. But it can make us examine important moral questions like being able to afford lunch when the majority can’t. Not with guilt, for we are not responsible for this situation, but in a helpful way that may relieve a little of its suffering. It may mean that we take the time to write a letter that may help someone who is illiterate. Or realise that it’s better to share the shopping with our domestic worker rather than to remove the price labels as someone I know does, ‘to spare her feelings.’
When I was a child we had to eat everything on our plate because of the poor starving children in India. This was a clumsy attempt to make us grateful for what we had, but it ignored the poor starving children in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia where we lived. They were on the other side of town just as, in an affluent society, they are largely on the other side of the world. When the poor are out of sight it doesn’t make their suffering go away.
I believe that to survive emotionally in these conditions requires an open heart. And at times it’s incredibly hard to keep it open. Over these last few very trying weeks I have found myself consumed with anger that things are this way.
But it’s a vicious circle because my ability to cope with the situation is diminished if I stay in that hard, angry place. To have some fun helps and so does an open wallet, though few are now able to give much.
At the time of Murambatsvina when our spirits were at their lowest ebb I had about 10 friends round for lunch. I provided a simple meal and friends bought a few bottles of wine. For a few precious hours we forgot about the horror all around us.
It may be that the people, who enjoyed their holiday at Elephant Hills tipped generously, bought many things they didn’t really want and took lots of side trips. I hope they did.

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