I’m hesitant to diverge from my more typical tales of travel, often romanticized stories of movement and food and culture hopping. But I feel compelled to write a few brief words this week about my perspective as a traveling global citizen on the ethical implications of our interactions with fellow people, whether they be neighbors on a lakeside walk or villagers in some hidden town in the hills of Laos.
Motivation for such discussion comes from the viral Kony 2012 video, which I know probably just caused a series of rolling eyes, sighs, and clicking over to the next blog. Though that may be the case, I beg you to read on as I willingly enter my voice into the disharmonious discord of 112,000,000 planet earth viewers of this film, not to provide additional critique for the growing cacophony, but in an effort to make sense of our responsibilities as wanderers.
To be brief, I’ve been connected to Invisible Children (the organization behind the film), since shortly after its founding, through a dear friend and fellow traveler who served tirelessly inside the movement during its early years. She has provided countless insight for me about the vision of the organization, its function (and sometimes dis-function), and its leading members, all of whom, including my friend, are filled with levels of compassion for our global society that should make the rest of us envious.
And I think compassion, a compassion that has not been shown to the filmmakers during the last ten days, is where our conversation really exists. This compassion is often mislabeled as “privileged white guilt,” a phrase that I wish to combat (at the risk of maybe revealing my own privileged white guilt).
When we see starving children digging through a thousand acres of trash at a dump . . . when we see amputees (limbs often destroyed by U.S. warfare) selling books to live through another day . . . when we see grandmothers begging, hunched over from years of hard field labor . . . if it’s not compassion that we feel, the most genuine emotion of wanting to reach out and help our fellow humans, what is it we are feeling? What are we suppose to feel?
Travel, strangely at its best, puts us into situations and settings where we are exposed to humanity in its rawest form. When we see for the first time, and the second and the third and the fiftieth, the great struggle for life, we are compelled to place the promise of another breath into the outstretched hand, the hungry eyes, the pleading heart.
As conscientious globetrotters, we know that maybe a few coins, or the day of service, or a small purchase of trinkets, does little to build the long-term capacity necessary for overcoming deep poverty. But it can be the first act, a symbolic commitment to taking home with us memories of true human suffering. Such a gesture stops the onslaught of the apathetic paralysis that often overtakes our compassion.
Inevitably, when we return home, we begin to rationalize and justify what we saw and experienced. We tell ourselves that if we are going to act on behalf of that malnourished and abandoned baby half-way across the world, we must do so in a sustainable, appropriate fashion. We must avoid the haphazard hand-out and instead lend the hand-up. We apply academic rhetoric and this dis-empowering language that only serves to wedge an emotional dissonance between our primal tendency towards compassion and the look of pure gratitude in that Vietnamese orphan’s eyes when we handed her a simple carton of milk, a nourishing item which we took so freely in our grade school lunch line.
So we may label Kony 2012 as an over-simplified, inaccurate documentary about a 26-year war. We may criticize the efforts of Invisible Children’s millions of teenage followers. We may even say it’s too little, too late, or that the campaign so focused on world peace will cause more damage than good. But I call bullshit. And I say shame on us.
Instead of allowing a wedge to be driven between his compassion and the soul-shaking sound of a young boy’s cry, (documented as the boy mourns the murder of a brother in the first Invisible Children film), Jason Russell returned from his Ugandan travels in 2003 with the conviction to save the lives of countless children and to help stop the man most wanted by the International Criminal Court. There is no doubt that the Invisible Children organization has made some fumbling, youthful mistakes along the way. And arguments can surely be boasted that their use of donations are non-traditional and sometimes maybe mismanaged.
Yet their nine years of work and consistent and rigorous growing understanding of the situation in Uganda and Central Africa, culminating most recently with the Kony 2012 Campaign, comes from sincere intentions rooted in compassion and grounded in the ethical imperative that should be true for all travelers and peacemakers . . .
We must know our cause. We must know, to the best of our ability, the nuanced implications of our actions. We must know the context for our compassion. But most importantly, we must overcome the paralysis and step out from our privileged white guilt, and we must act. In some ways, Gandhi’s phrase “be the change you wish to see in the world,” has been nauseatingly over-used, though I think that has arisen from the profound truth found in such wisdom.
So instead of saying his words, I shout them, compelling peaceful wanderers world-wide to take their next traveling step as an action of compassion, the only action that will not only bring the change we wish to see, but the change we so desperately need.