“When we’re doing our best to help as many fellow beings as possible, how do you not become overwhelmed with the magnitude of suffering? You do so much good; I do too; as do many others. But with the joy of giving always seems to come the pain of sadness and despair that it is never enough! Do you get what I mean?”
Yes, I do. The sadness and despair from witnessing so much poverty can sometimes be absolute.
I'll give you an example from the photos that this reader/friend saw on Facebook that prompted her to message me this question.
New to the city of Cebu in the Philippines but a veteran of living in SE Asia, I wanted to begin my stay by doing something to help out.
So a local friend and I arranged 50 simple meals – spaghetti, fried chicken, and white rice in white Styrofoam containers along with bottled water – to pass out to street kids one Saturday morning. We hopped in a taxi with all of the food stacked neatly in about a dozen plastic bags and boxes and
Instead of looking around outside my neighborhood, we went to the heart of the city - Osmena Circle. In the middle of the busy city center roundabout, we got dropped off and unloaded everything right there on the sidewalk against a wall. How would we go about finding homeless kids to pass the food out to? They found us, as soon out of nowhere a girl carrying two babies that looked like a young teenager approached us. We handed her the white cartons and bottles, and she thanked us politely with a big smile.
Before she even walked away, there were two more dirty street kids with big smiles behind her, then more totting their toddler brothers and sisters, and more running.
"No, mam, this is only for the kids," we had to politely turn down the elderly homeless lady in line asking for food. We only had so much. But somehow, as if they could smell the food and sense or good intentions, a dozen more street kids appeared out of nowhere, getting in line and giving courteous "thank you's" in their best English.
"Merry Christmas!" I answered back. Did I mention that I was wearing a Santa Claus hat the whole time? As if it wasn't hot enough
Whenever too many adults or elderly started falling on us, we'd pick up the remaining bags and walk a few blocks. Eventually, we ended up on a rundown street by a big, pristine church that was gated from the masses.
I'd thought the kids we'd helped before looked scrappy, these people were destitute. Little kids ran the streets everywhere with no parents, shirtless, shoeless, in rags, sometimes the youngest ones in oversized ratty t-shirts with no pants, flies buzzing ‘round. Many of them had their heads shaved with lopsided knives to make it easier to pick out the lice. Their hands and feet were black and crusted. Some of the boys couldn't be older than ten but already had the glassy, far off look from huffing glue or petrol in rags.
There were no orderly lines and polite manners here, even for our benefit.
They crowded us, almost attacked, desperate to get a meal.
"Hold on, hold on, don't grab – get back," I said, trying to keep them from ripping open the bags. They squeezed in, dropping down to ground level to get face to face with the bags, almost bowing to the food, hands pressing in any open space to try and get noticed. With all of those little dirty hands clawing at the food, it was almost like hands from the grave digging their way out and grasping for something living.
A food box broke, and I scrambled to grab the spilled spaghetti and put it back in the Styrofoam. I was using my hands to touch their food, I realized, but of course they didn't care – the only sin would be to let it hit the ground or throw it in the trash, although it still would get eaten.
And then, we were out of boxes.
"Sorry, sorry no more. All gone. Next time." I told them, but they still clawed, a mob of dozens now. I had to look them in the eyes and tell them that we had no more food. All those faces. They still reached, desperate, and followed us when we walked away. One boy wanted to the plastic bags, which we gave him. Another kid asked for my Santa Claus hat, which I told him I couldn't give away.
The crowd thinned by the time we got down the street, and we flagged down a taxi and collapsed in the aircon and rolled up windows of the backseat. I turned to my friend. "What really makes me sad is all of the people we couldn't feed, that we had to turn away," I said as I watched downtown Cebu roll by. It was only one meal. One day. One city. And not even 1% of 1% of 1% of the people in need around us.
How can this NOT break your heart? How do you not get so saddened and discouraged by this that you just give up?
Sure, the photos will be posted on my Facebook a long time, making it look like I did something significant – but that's far from the truth. I get that.
I guess I just tell myself that it does matter to those people, those human beings that are now fed. We didn't exist in their universe before that day, and all of a sudden someone came out of nowhere to offer them something that was otherwise out of reach in their lives.
It's like the old story about the kid picking up beached starfish and throwing them back into the ocean to save them. When a passerby challenges him that there are so many starfish on the beach that will die that he can't possibly make a difference, the kid simply threw another starfish back into the ocean and said, "It sure made a difference to that one."
These things exist whether we want to think about them or not. We can either do something to help or not. Either be a net positive in the world or yet another countless negative. What current will we carry and transmit?
How much, how often, where, with whom, etc. are all questions that need answering, but those are all personal choices, and I don't think as important as the simple "yes" or "no."
Do we pick one starfish up and throw it back? Imagine if the passerby in that story had stopped not to question the practicality of the child's actions, but to help? And surely if someone else walked by and saw the two of them, they might be more inclined to join in. And more and more, until you have a crowd of people on the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean, so many that you can't tell if there are now more people or starfish.
I think that by being out there and doing even these little things, it sets an example that others pick up. And just imagine if everyone did it? Since I was wearing a Santa hat, many local people we passed that day gave me words of encouragement and thanks for helping their people, or even looks of gratitude. Maybe one of them will start helping now because he saw a buang (crazy) foreigner doing so first?
A fat, drunken Scottish tourist approached us, genuinely interested in what we were doing and where we got the food (at first, I thought he was going to ask for a free snack!) and what made us help these street kids. Is he more conscious now, and might do something to help the people where he's so enjoying his vacation?
Once I posted the photo of us giving food to these kids on Facebook, I received a donation from a friend in Florida, completely unsolicited. It was enough to buy another 25 meals for 25 more kids. My friend doesn't have money and struggles himself and is up against a chronic illness, but still sends my money to help people he'll never meet a world away. And then, today, he sent me enough for another 20 meals. Unbelievable.
I guess my purpose is not just to throw as many starfish back in the ocean as I can, but to try and get other people on the beach to do the same - and they are. That's how I can cope, what I grab onto to pull myself back to light when the sadness of the world becomes overwhelming.