Monday, August 6, 2012

Why We Need to Understand


Cross-posted over at the Gasha Blog.


Recently, Bryan wrote an article titled “Why We Need to Act” for the Gasha blog. By and large, I agree with Bryan’s points as I, by and large, am apt to do. There’s one part that stuck out to me though, and I've been thinking about it a lot lately.

He was talking about a recent viral video featuring Karen Klein, a school bus monitor in New York that was harassed by some middle school students. After this video became public and well-known, an online fundraiser was started for her that raised $600,000.

Now, your initial reaction might be somewhat similar to mine, which was, “That is way too much money.” I don’t care how bad three children insulted her, what they said or how they said it. At the end of the day, they’re just words muttered by a few kids. No matter how bad it is, she’ll live, which is more than can be said for some children that need that money. Spending this amount on a grown woman who suffered through some naughty words while others starve to death is a travesty.

That is, I felt that way until I saw the video. A bit of personal backstory is needed here: In my day job, I teach middle schools. And while I love my students and my job, and never experienced anything as bad as Karen did, I’ve been close enough to situations like this one to understand how she must have felt. I’ve also spent a not insignificant amount of time assisting MCO in any way that I can, so I feel like I’m also familiar with the situation in Ethiopia regarding children and education. And yet, knowing how bad things are there and how much help is needed, I have never never been more angry in the year that I’ve been assisting MCO as I was for the 3 and a half minutes that I watched that video.

Now, in his article, it seems to me, Bryan suggests that people lose their focus from what’s important to distractions like this. I would argue differently. I never lost my focus while getting angry at this video, and it never escaped my notice this was not nearly as important as any humanitarian crisis anywhere around the world and not even close to being on the same level as one of those tragedies. The logical portion of my brain told me all this, but I was so mad I couldn’t even finish the video.

So what’s going on here? Well, here’s my hypothesis. Because of my job, I understand very well how frustrating it can be to be locked into a situation like that with children. In fact, I imagine that everyone at some point in their lives as been mocked by someone and at the same time been unable to argue back for whatever reason. However, because I’ve never been really, truly, painfully poor in my entire life and always lived in relative comfort, I cannot completely understand what these kids go through and therefore cannot be sufficiently angry. To put it in another way, their lives are so radically different from my own that when I try to imagine what it must be like, it’s like trying to imagine an entirely new color.

Now, it may seem like this article is heading for a downer ending, but that’s not the case. Understanding is not a yes/no question. There are different degrees of comprehension. If you read a book about Ethiopia, you won’t understand completely what life is like there, but your understanding will be improved. Or, if you visit Ethiopia, sponsor an Ethiopian child, or read a blog about Ethiopia (thank you!) you can inch ever closer to full understanding. From there, you can start to feel sufficiently angry over the injustice in the world.

So, I think the most important thing for us is to first understand. Understanding brings discontent, and from discontent, action. We should seek knowledge to help ourselves and others understand the situation, and our actions will soon follow.