Two weeks ago today, I got on a plane in Entebbe, Uganda headed for London. We were done with our work. Our two weeks were over, we did all we could do and more than I thought was possible, and our bodies and minds were exhausted. Our team was flying together to London, where we would then get on several different planes over the next 18 hours or so, and go home.
I think I can pretty confidently say that while I was in Uganda, I did the best I could, and gave all I had at the moment. Whatever the situation called for, and whatever part applied to me – I was available and did my best. I can say that for all the team members. But I can also say that when that plane was taking off, I was done. The last thing I wanted to do that day was go to another slum and see another sick kid or hopeless face. I didn’t have anything left for that; I wanted to fly to London, eat better food, visit Abbey Road that night, and go back to L.A. the next day. It was over.
At the same time I was taking off for London, around 9 am, the kids we saw a day or so before in the Sudanese slums were starting their day as well, still in the same place we left them. Some of them were going to school; most of them probably weren’t. Some of the ones who were so difficult to control during our medical clinic were probably still having fights and throwing bricks near the dirt-floor church building.
I’m not saying nothing changed for them. There were sick children who had been on their meds for over 24 hours by that time – meds we had given them – and hopefully they were starting to feel better. And there were a bunch of older people who were having trouble seeing their newspapers and their Bibles a day earlier, but with the reading glasses we gave them, they were having a better day.
But for the most part – their lives were pretty much going on as they always had. Mine was on its way back to normal (with a stop in London first), while theirs was back to normal too – although their normal was radically different than mine. Definitely, none of them were going to London that day or any other day.
That Friday morning, I was actually too tired to think about those people. I basically shut all that stuff off. But I did think about them the next day and have been thinking about them almost daily for the past two weeks. And I had this feeling about them, but couldn’t quite define it. At first it kind of felt like guilt – they were stuck there in their dirt-floor houses by the sewers with kids throwing bricks and most of them not going to school – and I was flying far away from it. That seemed kind of, I don’t know – unfair, maybe. But the more I thought about it, guilt didn’t seem like the appropriate word.
But another word seems to be a better fit – responsibility. Not that I’m responsible for putting them where they are; that’s actually getting more into the guilt thing. But responsibility in the sense of having seen it and experienced it, I’m now responsible to try to do something more about it.
Even though I live pretty simply, and at times have to get pretty creative to make ends meet – at least I have some creative options open to me. I have my own challenges to deal with, but I’m sure the average Sudanese-slum-living Ugandan would probably be happy to trade lives with me for a while. Although I’m not sure the average Sudanese-slum-living Ugandan would know how to play the piano or teach a music class, so once September rolls around, they’d have to trade back because let’s face it – someone has to teach those music classes I teach. But anyway…
The point in this rather long rambling blog post is this. Once you know about someone facing a hopeless, even life-threatening situation, if you have the ability to help in some way, then you have a responsibility to help in some way. You don’t have a responsibility to feel guilty (unless you personally caused the hopeless life-threatening situation, which I didn’t), but you do have a responsibility to act.
So the past two weeks have been about transferring a little bit of misplaced guilt into hopefully a little bit of helpful responsibility. I’m thinking, praying and having conversations with people about what the next steps are, because since I’ve seen and heard and smelled and experienced so much, I can’t leave it that way. Guilt isn’t always useful. Responsibility, however, is not only useful – it’s necessary.