Wednesday, January 13, 2010

About suffering ...

It seems odd to be here in Iowa’s southern hills enjoying this beautiful day --- sunshine, snwmelt, temperatures well above 30 degrees --- but uneasy as what possiby, quite probably, will turn out to be the Western Hemisphere’s greatest natural disaster in terms of human lives lost develops in Haiti.

I got to thinking a while ago about a W.H. Auden poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” that begins:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along ….

And then geography. How many Americans actually know where Haiti is? I was a little uncertain myself, sorry to say, despite geography courses at four levels, elementary, high school, college and military. Just a few miles off the southeastern tip of Cuba, I did know, but what was the name of that island? Hispaniola --- of course. Haiti shares it with, now let me think, the Dominican Republic. Of course again. But which is at what end? And were exactly in Haiti is Port-au-Prince? Finally looked at a map. Is geography still mandatory in public schools? Should be, but I just don’t know.

I watched the noon news on WHO after playing morning news junkie, moving from Web site to Web site looking for additional details. The state of Iowa’s judiciary and the weather, extensively covered and big news in a small puddle any other day, seemed irrelevant; the cheery chirpiness of noon anchors Megan and Patrick, downright annoying.

So I thought for a while about Jim Santori, a newspaper editor of sorts who I worked for back in the day when the newspaper business was hopeful and even modest dailies attempted to cover the broadest range of news possible. We would sit around the afternoon front page meeting discussing how the news of the day should be played.

If thousands of deaths anywhere in the world were involved in a natural or man-made disaster, most of us would argue the story demanded to be on front page. Jim, however, contended that placement and story length were factors of the color of the bodies. People were interested in white bodies, he said, but didn’t care about brown ones. So no matter how great the toll in Asia or South America, a news brief somewhere inside was sufficient. So much for the holocausts in Cambodia, Rwanda.

Quite frankly, I don’t remember much else about Santori but I do remember that. And the fact his star continued to rise in newspapering at least for a time.

So I wonder now if skin color really is a factor in how white folks perceive disaster, or if we’ve moved beyond that. Will the fact that Haiti’s population is overwhelmingly black and very poor make a difference in how most of us attend to the news, bother to pray, send aid as best we can when the death toll is estimated at 100,000 and rising? What if it had been the New Madrid fault that let loose; St. Louis, the scene of the carnage?

And what about faith? Each time I read someone’s explanation of why he or she has lost his or her faith and no longer believes, a disaster like that in Haiti seems to be cited --- “How could a loving God allow such a thing to occur?” That’s a logical question when we have created God in our own image and are offended if He fails to behave as we would; of course we’d never allow such a thing to happen if we were in control, we would have quelled the quake and spared the multitudes. But reminders that we are not God are disconcerting, challenging to deal with.

And so to prayer, but what and who to pray for? For the dead and dying, I think, that light perpetual may shine upon them; for the bereaved, that they may be comforted; for the injured, that they may be healed; and for us, that we may find and share the resources needed to feed the hungry, tend the stricken and house the homeless.

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