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Maladies of Muslim Societies in America – I : Intro April 3, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Life's Lessons, Muslims, Travel.
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Making a diagnosis

Making a diagnosis (via chaparral @ Flickr, by-nc license)

As I struggle to complete a number of assignments set for myself before academic burdens take sway, I’ve procrastinated for far too long in order to get on top of this important topic. Part of the reason was deciding whether or not to write a single post as opposed to a continuing series. Since the subject is vast in scope I’ve decided on the latter. It would do more justice for me to elaborate on details and incorporate new observations as I continue to experience them.

Why is this important?

Well firstly because in my opinion, you might say as a doctor, you can’t treat a problem without coming to a truthful and accurate diagnosis. In my travels and experiences in various regions of the world, I’ve observed that a lot of times, thought suppression plays a key role in allowing maladies to fester among populations. When people prefer to stay in denial and would rather not confront their demons and engage in wishful thinking, this gives rise to assessments of things that don’t match in their severity with facts on the ground. And America and regions similar to it are no exceptions. You see like for many denizens in India going about their daily lives, the America of its dwellers is an America of their silver screens. An America of the mind. Illusory, filled with all kinds of bedazzling spectacles and promises and an America that the American as well as the Indian villager, each lost in his very own catacomb, finds for the most part all good and dandy.

I think there are times in history when matters have to be handled minus the sugar-coating. When a tumor needs to be called a tumor. No matter how hard such a fact might be to swallow. Without such honesty it is hard to devise proper solutions.

As for the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, let’s face it, patients still find use for their doctors even if they have unhealthy lifestyles. I guess the following hadith, demonstrates the value of this process too (quoted in part, emphasis added):

Bukhari Volume 2, Book 26, Number 797 (also found in other places):

Narrated Abu Bakr RA:

The Prophet delivered to us a sermon on the Day of Nahr. He said ” […] So it is incumbent upon those who are present to convey it (this information) to those who are absent because the informed one might comprehend it (what I have said) better than the present audience, who will convey it to him. […].”

I’m no murshad. And nor should you be some mureed. Allah SWT knows best what faults lie within us all and may He grant us all the hidayah to overcome them. Ameen. Sometimes I feel like I ought not to speak. At other times I think the lid needs to be blown off.

My second reason is that for many Muslims, including those who haven’t yet reached its shores, Muslims in America represent some kind of panacea for the Ummah‘s problems. The fountainhead from which a future renaissance might spring forth to be absorbed like sponges by the rest of mankind loafing around in the backseat. Popular sites like Islam-Online (the English version of which, for some reason, is now basically in shambles), MuslimMatters, MSA listservs, etc., where-from I myself at one point in my life used to draw assessments, give to rise to a profound selection bias that serves to perpetuate this misjudgment. Also because many young readers in the world, succumbing to environmental pressors, have dumped their own languages in the pursuit of English and are thus left with a limited number of options, often foreign, in order to make sense of their native surroundings. Given these conditions, it is no wonder that for some of our arguably deranged eschatology experts, “the sun will rise from the West” is interpreted in this rosy-eyed manner, that ‘the sun’ here refers to Islam and ‘the West’, places like America.

In the end, what is hoped to be achieved is a better understanding of where sections of the Ummah stand in places like America. Our individual and collective failings. And lessons to be drawn and to be applied to local problems, no matter where in the world we are. And for those of us who still have any glimmer of hope left, a starting point to build a list of things-to-do with our short, transitory lives. In the interests of maintaining a little balance, I’m going to start a series in the near future on some of the positive aspects of US Muslim societies insha’Allah.

The Milieu

You’ve heard it before. But let’s just go over the basics once again. US Muslims fall broadly into two groups: those whose history stretches waaaaay back – Turtle Islanders, Caucasians who came in from Europe and elsewhere and African-Americans and other groups – and those whose history is more recent – economic migrants from all over the world, from Japan to Argentina.

In the first category, African-American Muslims, who have had historic struggles with slave trade and destitution stretching continuously to the very present, I’d say have played the most prominent role in US history.

As for the second category, we find that America represents the grass that’s greener for huge swathes of underprivileged Muslim people (way better off than those who’ve migrated to Europe, as Tariq Ramadan confirms). While it’s true that for many, from an economic perspective it represents a step-up from their present circumstances, I think the tendency is to paint it all in one giant brush-stroke, dark green. Very dark green. Heaven on earth, in short. Nuance is lost. And what surprises me is that this tendency sticks long after that fateful migration has taken place. Muslims who’ve immigrated to erstwhile Turtle Island, will desist taking a critical appraisal of their environment, the many pressures and pressure-valves it presents and their own role, as khalifas, in helping shape its future for their own betterment and of those around them. You could argue that some of these traits spill over into Muslims of the first category too.

America poses several challenges for healthy living. And not just for Muslims. But as khalifas you’d expect to see some kind of effort being put into doing something about it by Muslims. And it really is saddening to see that like Muslims elsewhere in the world, US Muslims are lost grappling with themselves, let alone showing their neighbors what to do. With rare exceptions, it’s all pretty much go-with-the-flow.

For starters, let’s just focus on the economic system. Ruthless and unfair capitalism guarantees a workaholic life. If you don’t put in your 110% and do extra hours, there’s a good chance that someone else will. And because greed drives everything, despite namesake laws that exist to dissuade employers from this unscrupulous behavior, there’s a good chance that you’d get fired to be eventually replaced by a new workhorse. If it’s in your taqdeer to get a severance package, you might be able to weather the ensuing storm until you find new employment. Those who don’t, find the pink slip treatment a lot harder to bear. There’s that 30-year hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars-worth mortgage to pay off. For that’s what owning a home costs in Umricaland. And then there’s the 2-3-year tens-of-thousands-of-dollars-worth car loan (reliable public transport in the US is virtually non-existent except for pockets here and there. The automobile corporations made sure of that). Unpaid credit card bills. Four kinds of income taxes to deal with depending on where one lives. Day-care. College. Healthcare insurance premiums (sorry, ain’t no such thing as free public healthcare here). Food & utility bills that run into the hundreds. Crippling costs of living in short.

Workaholism demolishes not just the individual but family life as well. The individual finds no time for developing a complete personality. No time for books. No time for exercise. No time to pursue a hobby like art. No time to dwell on current affairs and peer behind 30 second soundbites on news channels. No time to learn history. No time to do justice to his part in the decisions his political shepherds make. And so on. As for the family, BOTH spouses will feel obliged to work to make ends meet. While they’re at it, neglected children will develop a deeper attachment with their daycare providers rather than their parents. Until ultimately by the age of 16, most will want to live away from parents. They call this “emancipation“, you see. Ironically, Kaplan Medical’s book chapter1, Social Life in the US (a must read for anyone interested in US social life) states that it has been statistically found that spouses find more happiness when they’ve sent their children away. I guess they’ve used an odd definition of happiness. Or could it be that the threat their kids will report them to child protection services for doing their job, finally at last ceases to loom over their heads? Or could this just be a reflection of how depressingly standards and expectations about kids change with successive generations? Allahualam.

For new migrants coming from societies where kids form an important social support mechanism for the elderly, this comes as a profound culture shock and something to come to terms with as their children are influenced by social pressures in public schools. These social pressures also include things like fornication, STDs, teen pregnancy, drugs, guns, crime, gambling, boozing, you name it. One obscure but shocking statistic from this article is that nearly HALF of all Muslim college students have at one point or another taken to alcohol. Such a shame! This kind of decay really gets in their faces when the more God-fearing US Muslims look for spouses. Under these circumstances, I find it no surprise that many families prefer to find for their kids spouses from their lands of ethnic origin.

Discontent, abandoned parents ultimately end up in nursing homes at the fag end of their lives.  Some, foreseeing the inevitable, try to plan and make arrangements in advance with their riba-riddled retirement saving plans. Richer ones will find suitable nursing homes that go with their status. Like glass houses. Sparkly. Fragile. Sometimes when you pass by these edifices, with their glowing lights and chandeliers, you wonder what a hollow life it all is. The lengths people will go to to keep up appearances, while remaining moth-eaten inside. Sadly, meeting with parents and family become once-a-year events during occasions like Christmas or the more fake, Thanksgiving (more on its history later for there’s nothing really to give thanks about. Quite the contrary in fact). An occasional phone call or two between siblings and family members the only tenuous threads that remain. People who come from backgrounds that place a strong emphasis on keeping in touch with extended family gradually begin to change their conception of what is normal. From a transitory phase of unease and inner conflict it becomes natural and EXPECTED to meet with close relatives rarely. Anything more than a visit or two in a couple of years becomes just too much to ask. What’s really quite depressing is that a LOT of US Muslims have acquiesced and mentally come to peace with this lifestyle. Failing to understand that some of its origins could have to do with what some authors have called a low-context culture, that deprecates close interpersonal relationships.

While the national average for the failure of marriages is that half if not more are likely to end in divorce, Muslims aren’t far behind with percentages ranging in the 30s. Result? Soaring depression rates and broken lives continually yearning to fulfill some or the other unmet need – physical, economic or psychological – until the day they depart this life, hopefully naturally. And like the rest of America, Muslims swim in debt and interest. For as long as they live, there’s no real mental peace.

From an economic standpoint, it’s not as if Muslims don’t have a choice. They do, to a significant degree. When everybody else happily accepts debt and riba to pursue unsustainable goals in life that have faaaar reaching consequences, the pressures to stay in the game and compete are pretty high. It’s a question of one’s social standing, you see. A question of impressing upon fellow men the image of conformist sanity. There’s a lot of groupthink inertia to deal with. The IMAGE is what everyone’s after. And breaking with the flow becomes a momentous task. It becomes hard to say NO to that large, half-a-million dollar house. To say NO to that gas-guzzling, expensive, first-hand car. To say NO to that extra bonus for the nights spent away from family. To say NO to more unnecessary work life. And so on. It’s all about the FASHION of living beyond one’s means in the end – from an economic as well as social perspective. There’s frankly little surprise in my mind about the fractures that come for free along with this deceptive and costly product that everyone falls for. I mean, isn’t it obvious what to expect?!

Riba and debt are a topic for a future post, insha’Allah. The US social fabric EXPECTS you to have a history with debt. They call this a “credit history“. And with it comes a FICO score. Without it, sometimes landlords will refuse to offer homes for rent. Car dealers will refuse to sell their merchandise and so on. And debt and interest form the bedrock by which new currency is produced. So it isn’t that simple to eliminate in toto.

What brings profound dismay, is that far from being conscious of these issues, confronting them, proposing solutions and implementing them in their daily lives, Muslims in the US seem to have been swept away by the tidal force of this hedonism. Continuously reacting in maladaptive ways and seeing no way out, clamoring to conform as best as possible whilst their shuyookh and ulema, the appointed social engineers of Muslim societies to whom this task has been relegated in the most irresponsible spirit imaginable, chill out with other priorities.

Tisk tisk. Is there any real hope left?

_____

Footnotes:

1. Behavioral Science Lecture Notes for the USMLE Step 1 & Step 2CK – Kaplan Medical

_____

© ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit

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An Albuquerque Odyssey March 27, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Life's Lessons, Travel.
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Albuquerque (chantal foster@Flickr, by-nc-nd license)

Early January. Another day, another destination’s Aalaw. On the flight spanning two time zones across America’s vast expanse from Baltimore, one couldn’t escape the breathtaking sight of an entire megacity perched among peaks as high as 6000 odd feet. Very Tabuk-esque I thought, reminded of that ancient town at the crossroads of Arabia, the Fertile Crescent and the Sinai. That source of ineluctable longing and incessant pleasant memories from my childhood years.

‘Could this bring it all back?’ I wondered as I sat stunned gazing at the spectacular sight, SubhanAllah. There’s always been something magical about living amongst peaks. And this should be no exception, I thought.
On a high, I could almost smell the cleaner air and my skin began anticipating the extreme variations of temperature across what I felt lay ahead – a highly knobby landscape.

Touchdown; and the airport at once seemed so different to the ones you’d see in a metropolis like New York. Spread out to the extreme, the few passengers there were strolling at a leisurely pace, the building embellished with an interesting blend of modern and ancient architecture incorporating guess what – wood – and paved with brick tiles that would rattle luggage trolleys, one had to walk a football field or two to find ground transport.

Albuquerque, or rather  البوقرق (the emphatic Q occurring twice in the same word makes you wonder if this was an Arabic town lost in some hidden corner in this part of old Mexico’s expanseThe surprising answer came pretty quickly to me later), as I fondly remember it, is situated on a high plateau surrounded by hills. The landscape that my skin was anticipating cruising up in the sky, was towards the periphery I realized. Not here, where I stood eager to catch the hotel shuttle. With a population of roughly 1 million thinned out over its surface like a poorly jammed slice o’ bread, by urban America’s standards البوقرق is in one word, sparse. It is dotted with modest homes in striking contrast to the extravagant suburbia characteristic of places like Chicago.  Distinctly desert, as evidenced by the familiar short shrubbery peppering its barren but warm landscape and with green palm trees to be seen here and there. But this was not the desert I knew back from the Hejaz. This was a high desert. Cooler. Even colder at times, as I was to later find out there had been a massive pileup of, wait for it – police cars – on a freeway when it had its dose of sleet a few days before. What is it with New England towns and their resilience in cold weather I thought. Barely few days later I would be riding a packed bus in the midst of a snow and hail storm between New York and Baltimore, in near white-out conditions!

But yes, the palm trees (struggling with parched conditions as they seemed) were a welcome sight as was the desperately needed sunshine that your body yearned for, coming from storm-riddled New England. New York had just been through a blizzard unprecedented in recent history and those vivid descriptions of office-goers taking to skiing on its caked streets on Amy Goodman’s show were still fresh in my mind. Running (my choice of exercise) in ice, up in the north was risky and something one had to think twice about. America’s woeful healthcare system and costs be damned.

I was here to meet a deadline too I recalled. ‘Oh! I’ve only two hours to unpack, unwind, and suit up! What’s more, I have to iron that freaking suit!’ And then catch yet another shuttle to what was to become in this odyssey my third destination. But coming back to where I stood waiting for the shuttle driver to pick me up, I noticed someone who seemed just as concerned as I was, stroking his wrist watch, murmuring explicatives. Not surprising I felt. For all the superficial courtesy among people in American society, people drop curse words right, left and center like there’s no tomorrow. From the most elite business executives, politicians or pontiffs to the tiniest tots as they are groomed in امریکا ‘s oft lauded network of public schools where peer pressure runs inescapably high, it is – PERVASIVE. One of the many awkward paradoxes I learned about the US in my travels. We took the same ride together to the hotel, exchanging pleasantries along the way. He & I were here for the same purpose we each learned. The driver explained to us about the dirt cheap costs of living, the exciting outdoor opportunities like climbing the Sandias & skiing too if that was our hobby, a couple of notable eateries and you guessed it, for this is Umricaland, pubs and other rather debauched places to hang out. ‘Oh let’s not get so judgmental’, my inner voice jeered. ‘Haven’t you read about such stuff in Arabia or boozing and human trafficking elsewhere in your travels? Heck, you as a doctor have met with such people in the hospital, in that subcontinent located in the derisively labeled “third world”! Silly you!’ You see, traveling, reading and a keen sense of observing things had made half of me a more nuanced person. Or so I hoped, Alhamdulillah. We talked about rumors of the town being famished, as was visible by the seemingly unkempt roads (by امریکی standards mind you), and high rates of violent crime. The driver confirmed that the place was on the crossroads for druggies coming in from Central America. But the weather isn’t as extreme as it is up in the northern reaches of New Mexico he quickly said as if to reassure.

So this was it. NM – the two letter abbreviation that represented so much. Home of the Manhattan Project, billions wasted from the public exchequer personified in five thousand bloodthirsty nuclear tipped missiles lurking somewhere near the airport as I believed I had read some place, and where that science celebrity & demagogue drew his inspiration to bring forth what, in my opinion, is possibly one of the worst books ever published in all of mankind’s short history.

Checking into the hotel wasn’t too bad. My ہمسفر and I parted ways, agreeing to rendezvous shortly. He explained he was Korean. ‘The South, I bet?’ I asked. ‘Yup. You know the North is in lock-down.’ My inner voice interjected, ‘funny how it’s now no longer under the US State Department’s famous list‘.

The room wasn’t too spectacular. In fact I soon found out that besides an unusable toilet by Asian, Muslim standards (more on this in a separate post InshaAllah), it was fitted with an iron that had a broken thermostat! ‘Oh squat! Just an hour left!’ And housekeeping couldn’t make it in time with a new one I was told. ‘Oh Allah! Help!’ Firm in belief, as always, that rarely does Allah SWT not leave solutions out there for the world’s myriad problems, I began to brainstorm. I would plug and unplug the iron periodically. In half an hour I had my suit crisp and ready, Alhamdulillah.

My Korean co-traveler and physician was already in the lobby. As we waited for the driver to take us to that important meeting, continuing where we left off, he and I shared brief summaries of the histories of our ethnic lands of origin. He was originally from Korea. Grew up in Argentina. And went to medical school in New Jersey. He told me that he couldn’t make sense of the division between the North and South.

It wasn’t like the Indian Subcontinent where people slaughtered each other (and do so to this day) and parted ways in the name of, wait for it – ‘culture’, ‘religion’ and worst of all as a Muslim, in a fashion antithetical to the calls for interfaith dialogue and co-existence espoused by the ‘moderate’ and championed Shuyookh of today. (Things like dialogue, co-existence, Da’wah were, it seems to me, the least priorities in peoples minds in the centuries leading up to that bloody chapter in human history. I’ll have a book review and a series of articles on the Subcontinent shortly, InshaAllah. There are many neglected lessons that this history provides for Muslims all over the world.)

No. The Korean drama was different. People spoke the same. Lived the same. Religious differences were rather negligible. It all seemed just so artificial and politically engineered. He explained the Japanese influence in Korea’s history. At which point I transitioned into the Subcontinent’s own bristle with Japan in the Andamans and its North-East during WW2. Moving on to the 70s and therefrom, I asked about what he knew of the Kwangju massacre. Ecstatic at my interest in the area, he inquired how I’d even heard of it! Alhamdulillah, I love reading and remembered an article a famous journalist had written about recently declassified papers from the Carter era. Furthermore, that part of the world, along with Indochina, China, Russia’s Far East and its neighbors, its deep history and those of Muslim minorities living there have always fascinated me. We had a very useful exchange on the imports of Kwangju, how it shaped South Korean democracy, so recent as it is, putting it now on the world stage as an economic powerhouse. He mentioned the varying and contradicting positions South Korea’s presidents took towards the renegade generals responsible for the tragedy. And how people have surprisingly moved on. Sinister truths from the declassified papers about the US vis a vis the massacre left him kind of amazed. I humbly referred him to the journalist’s website. He mentioned how he felt Korea never saw ‘thinkers’ like Gandhi, etc. for some reason. And – we heard a voice – our driver was here and we needed some mental prep before the meeting.

We finally reached that moment of truth. Being one on one with other liquor-clutching physicians in-training who were entrusted to find for their training program, the right recruits amongst the dozens who were there. By now I knew the drill. We were stuck with adhesive name tags that seemed to peel away every ten seconds. As each tag dropped and stuck to the dusty floor in that underlit, jazz-riddled, pub-like hall, I would swoop down and as agilely as I possibly could, pick it up and put it back on again. It was a rather futile and at times clumsy exercise. By the end of the evening, the soiled adhesive name tag wasn’t adhering any more.  I met a senior physician in-training who was from the Subcontinent. She mentioned that her ancestry was a mix of Gujarat and Kerala. But as expected, from meeting with other ‘Western’-ite desis before, her cultural behavior was anything other than desi. In fact she’d just introduced me to her Caucasian spouse. And her adorable fair-skinned infant, as she explained the details of the program. Desis in America are a breed apart from desis in Desiland. As are Koreans, Arabs, Hispanics, etc. I had learned this from experience. One requires tact and cultural insight for these different groups to get along. But more on this in a later post, InshaAllah.

Amidst all the banter, I met a fellow contestant who came from Syria. I was elated to find someone to speak my rather shoddy Arabic with. But who cares, it was going to be fun, I thought! 🙂 He mentioned that he was staying in a hotel room just next to mine! In fact, for weird reasons, we had a common door connecting them both from the inside. We exchanged a few Arabic words that evening and the next day. Talking about the similarities البوقرق had with Arab landscapes, the fact that so much of what’s in a name gets lost in translation (as Sooria, becomes Syria, Damashq becomes Damascus, Caahera becomes Cairo, etc.) I also further mentioned that my parents named me inspired by a famous freedom fighter and a poet from Aleppo. It was nice to connect with him culturally. Knowledge isn’t just from books, you know. A lot of it comes from on-the-ground experience, meeting with people. A fact that I’d first gleaned reading about explorers like Ibn Battuta, Xuenzang, etc. and then confirmed meeting with Indian villagers who would come to my hospital having no idea of what in fact was India. Where its capital was or what it looked like on paper. Much to their governments’ rattling to the contrary, their India was their village. And that’s all a worried mother or father laboring in their fields ever cared about. Over the years I came to realize that borders are the ultimate bureaucratic hammerheads designed to clobber all manner of human diversity, richness and nuance to eternal oblivion. A fact that’s easily missed by the social herds of which we seem to be a part. Braindeath is the norm you see.

We met with senior faculty the day after that evening meeting. News had just come that there was a shooting incident earlier in the ER of the medical facility perched in this beautiful, yet among America’s poorest of cities (for reasons I suspect similar to this). Poverty and negligence feed a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. And البو قرق I realized was no exception. Another contestant, from Mexico, remarked that it didn’t even match economically with cities back home.

Despite it all, the city has a calm pace and laid back community. Some (in)famous Muslim personalities too whom I’d rather not name. And welcoming, warm hearted people. The challenge in New Mexico is the same as it is in the Subcontinent. Poor healthcare penetrance, lack of education leading to poor compliance with treatments and widespread loss to followup. Heck, there’s even an unwavering faith in “alternative medicine” (what people in the Subcontinent have their own version of in the forms of Ayurveda and Unani). These are areas in which to master skills, that would be essential for any physician wanting to do good for the needy patients there. It was interesting for me to learn about this side of America. In the Subcontinent, the view is that امریکا is like heaven. Tisk-tisk at the all-pervading, hopeless braindeath in our world. May Allah SWT grant us the taufeeq and desire to gain more knowledge about each other! Ameen. It would do SO much to foster peace and understanding in our world.

The junior physicians showed us around the city and talked about, among other things, breweries to check out. To my shock but-by-now-not-surprise one of the first people in the entourage to eagerly ask about the joys of this pastime was a young lady with an Arabic name. I figured Muslim. Wallahualam. (More on failings among Muslim societies in America in future posts InshaAllah. This is a neglected topic that people, who haven’t experienced it all first hand for themselves, will be shocked by. Reading sites like MuslimMatters.org or Islam-Online.net, one gets an extremely rosy perspective on Muslims in the US. Things on the ground are extremely depressing as I’ll elaborate in the future InshaAllah.)

Soon thereafter, my Korean and Syrian co-travelers left to trace their return journeys as did I. It gave me a good feeling that Allah SWT presented me with these opportunities to learn about people and for them to learn about me. Alhamdulillah, I was able to gel-in, speaking fluent American, diligently polished over the course of a few months a couple of years before. And I was filled with humility (knowing how much remained unexplored) Alhamdulillah, being told by my departing Korean-Argentinean-American ہمسفر that he’d never before met someone with such an interest in Kwangju. And my Syrian friend and I wished each other الال‍قا and السلام وعليكم . My interest in the Levant has been piqued ever since. And it has been fascinating learning about the demography of Muslims in the region – the Alawis and other groups.

البوقرق will be hard to forget. Its beauty. Its sunshine. Its poverty. Its social issues. Home to the largest percentage of Native Americans of any State, and virtually devoid of a significant African-American presence for some reason, I would want to be back to explore more someday. And perhaps come out with a decent photo-essay this time around InshaAllah.

© ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit

Lessons From The Stories Of Médecins Sans Frontières & Médecins du Monde March 23, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Charity, Life's Lessons.
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Take My Hand

Take My Hand (via viking_79 @ Flickr by-nc license)

I’ve been meaning to put this down in writing for a while. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a profound discovery. Going over some of the (arguably buried) history of how Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), the famous humanitarian NGO, formed and then how a couple of doctors belonging to the organization felt it necessary to branch out and create a splinter group called Doctors Of The World (Médecins du Monde), I came upon an idea.

It’s not WHAT tire that meets the road that counts but rather IF in fact the tire meets the road.

For in the end, be it the Red Cross with their confidentiality agreements with governments and troublesome secrecy, the MSF with their bothersome apolitical stance on humanitarian crises or Médecins du Monde with their ideology, no agency is likely to satisfy one’s philosophical aspirations fully (yup, not even Islamic Relief or any other Muslim NGO). It’s not what humanitarian NGO you choose to join that matters as much as what you, as a person, accomplish on the ground meeting with the needy, the destitute & the dying and doing something about it. Those people can’t wait until you’ve figured out what’s wrong with your life as you sit cooped up in a dark den in some corner.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that one’s efforts as an individual, even as part of an NGO, would bring about the profound changes one envisions in the societies they serve. You do what needs to be done, one starfish at a time. Measuring success in individual lives saved rather than fret about the hordes that one might have rescued had things been different. Every life saved a source for continued resolve. Each day a new beginning. And to keep at it no matter how futile it all seems until the very end. After all, such an approach would bring one more solace and inner peace the day they depart this life than knowing that when it mattered most, they could have actually done something and yet did nothing. Something. Anything. Before it was too late.

I’d say it would probably make sense to limit your goals to one or two priorities on the ground. Not more. And think of an NGO, not as some kind of vehicle to accomplish grand objectives, but to value it objectively for what it really is. Just a means to get organized with a bunch of other concerned humans who share those limited priorities.

Thinking logistically rather than philosophically can sometimes reap greater results. Between the MSF and MDM (using them as examples here. pick your favorite NGO groups), wouldn’t it make more sense to ask the question, “how many volunteers?” rather than, “what’s their worldview?” There might be legitimate concerns about ideologies, sure. No denying that. But one has to ask how often do these things overshadow everything else? And how often do we allow ourselves to slip into paralysis by analysis. Sometimes even when the ship to accomplish the mission that we profess to fulfill has long set sail!

An eagle’s-eye view at ReliefWeb strengthens this perspective. Myriads of NGOs – of every color and philosophy imaginable – all working together to save and help preserve the sanctity of human lives. And at the end of the day, individual people doing their tiny bit to get the job done. One person at a time. If the destitute survive, perhaps they would be more likely to sit with you and have a chat about what you think constitutes the essence of life. Wouldn’t you agree?

©  ctwayfarer @ Contemplations In Transit