Steps Toward Compassion


I’m really tired today. I’m tired by choice, because I rock and roll all night and party every day played goaltimate with Corin last night and then stayed up watching Mission: Impossible and eating Wild Mike’s Ultimate Pizza (best frozen pizza ever!).

I spent years being tired not due to my bedtime choices, but because I suffered insomnia. When my insomnia finally alleviated, I had a far greater value for sleep than before its onset. Before insomnia’s relentless siege, I would casually skip sleep. In fact, I considered it a badge of my rugged and indomitable spirit that I could pull an all nighter, or muscle through on three or four hours or less, sometimes for several days in a row. When I list my youthful foolishness, this definitely makes the cut. Of course, I was still doing this in my mid-forties, so you can decide whether that counts as “youthful” or on my list of “delusional foolishness.”

It’s funny/not funny how we can enjoy an experience as long as its optional, but find we hate it when we have no choice. You might enjoy the feeling of being buzzed but feel very different about vertigo. “Roughing it” can be fun, but not being able to make ends meet and deciding what you’ll do without is a different experience entirely.

I suspect we don’t recognize our privilege because we haven’t grasped this difference.

When we lived in Nicaragua, I tried to explain that we lived next to those in poverty, but we did not live in poverty. In fact, I remember a conversation with a supporter who didn’t understand why, if we were going to live in a country where people were living on $200 each month, we needed to raise so much more than that. The answer to that still makes me uncomfortable. Someone who lives on $200 has no health insurance, no car/gas/insurance, no new clothes, and very meager budget for food. Paying for school supplies is difficult and attending anything other than public school is usually impossible. Toiletries like toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and shampoo become luxuries that one more or may not be able to afford in a given month. What we would consider minor medical concerns become crises.

By U.S. standards, we lived very simply in Nicaragua. I remember this every single day as I experience luxuries here. Handwashing dishes, no hot water in our house, a clothes washer but no dryer, etc. Plus, life simply works easier in a country with functioning infrastructure, generally observed traffic laws, etc, etc. Yes, I’m still talking about “wealth” here, because we live in a place now where these services are built into our lives. You would have to live in a place with roads that alternated between teeth-rattling and impassible to appreciate fully how wonderful our paved roads are here. I don’t say that as criticism, but as fact. I didn’t appreciate sleep when I went without it but could choose to catch up anytime I wanted. You might drive on a rough road and think, “This is unpleasant!” But when you have no other option, every day, you discover how miserable an unpaved road can be. That’s a minor example.

The privation that really hit home for me was water. We were still privileged, in that when we woke up and found we had no water coming out of the faucets–which happened intermittently, from a few days at a time to six weeks in a row–we could still buy water to drink. Many of our Nicaraguan neighbors didn’t have that in their $200 budget and instead had huge barrels of water set aside for those situations. Of course, some simply had no running water and had to find ways to fill those barrels year-round.

But do you know what happens with a standing barrel of water in a tropical climate? It becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes, practically ideal conditions if you wanted the mosquitoes to thrive. Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, and several other truly nasty diseases are carried and spread by these thriving mosquitoes. We contracted all of those during our time in Nicaragua, though we didn’t have standing barrels of water; we lived in a barrio where our neighbors had no other choices.

That’s only one aspect–and for most Nicaraguans living in poverty not even the primary aspect–of not having running water. Drinking, cooking, bathing, toilets, everything becomes damned difficult. But don’t forget that all of those diseases are miserable, sometimes life-threatening, and there was barely any money for medicine, either.

I think it’s funny, as in funny-ridiculous, when we want to reject that we experience privilege. Of course we do. Having lived in Managua for seven years, I know I have an advantage in seeing it. I also know I didn’t appreciate sleep very much until I couldn’t sleep more than three hours in a row for days or weeks at a time. The camouflage of privilege is that often we can’t quite see what we have until we don’t have it. We can’t quite grasp what other people suffer until we get some taste of what going without as they do would really be like, not as a lark, but as deprivation.

Saying this does not mean I have had an easy life nor that my suffering doesn’t count. Isaac still died. My dad still died three weeks before our son. My bouts with depression are real and not a good time. No more am I saying that your difficulties somehow matter less. When we hear this word “privilege,” we seem to have a knee jerk reaction to prove that yes, I have too suffered.

But for us to live as compassionate people, we must grasp that others suffer in ways we do not. We have to let ourselves see what others experience, even if–no, especially when–it’s not what we experience. Traveling helps with this, but so can reading.* Or plain old listening.

One last, heavy point: insomnia was so much worse than I imagined, maybe worse than I could convey to you. Going without sleep isn’t only physical deprivation, nor even that plus the emotional toll; it’s also the desperation and despondency piled on top. Hours of going crazy, begging God to help me fall back asleep, but it seemed the moment you realize you’ve woken up again, the wheels spin out of control, like the frustration and discouragement have a cumulative effect. I tell you this not because I need sympathy for something from which I no longer suffer. (If you write a reply about that I’ll know you weren’t following my reasoning.) When we are willing to listen and pay attention, to believe people about their suffering, we also remember that we still don’t grasp it from the inside. When we start to get a glimmer, it’s only that. We don’t get what they are going through.

What examples do you have of A)what you’ve experienced that others don’t get and B)what you’ve glimpsed and realize others have suffered that you have not?

*Yes, books on tape and documentaries also count!

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