The heart aches.
Down the rocks,
The fingers are numb,
The knees tremble.
It is now,
Now, that you must not give in…
July 6, 1961
When former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold penned this poem, he elucidated an aspect of what “saying Yes to his neighbor and to Fate would mean and involve”i and the degree of difficulty such a stand poses for all of us.
Anyone involved in relief work as volunteer, staff or donor might well recognize the feeling. A pledge of service to Haiti, in particular, often brings out the frustrations, struggles and a chorus of doubts about one’s effectiveness in full measure. At times, the forest looms large and one tree seems inconsequential.
Our Westernized world measures success by the accounting of what businesses call deliverables, things that can be touched, quantified and categorized: the more, the better. But in Haiti, deliverables often get lost in the mail or arrive by a rambling scenic route rather than overnight express. Nothing – and I do mean nothing – comes easy. Project parameters that appear cohesive and certain one minute suddenly scatter like a stream of mercury dropped on a linoleum floor the next.
At some point, the question, “Why do I keep doing this?” takes flight.
The discipline of theology hinges on asking the right question. Budding theologians soon learn that the “why” questions never bring satisfying answers or reveal much of value about human or divine actions. The “what” questions however crack open a cornucopia of insightful and illuminating epiphanies.
Simply put, Haiti is a compass to reveal the direction your compassion and your humanity points. It is not the only such compass in the world, but it is the one that has found its way onto your path. You would not be reading this magazine if it were not so.
As Hammarskjold’s poem continues:
If you can,
But do not complain,
The way chose you—
And you must be thankful.ii
What hangs in the balance is not the calling, but your response.
The question for all of us called to and selected by Haiti, most especially the fatigued, is not “Why do I keep doing this?” but “What should be my response?” The question is valid in the disheartening times and when we enjoy those energized bursts of enthusiasm. Ralph Waldo Emerson gives us a critical clue of direction: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters to what lies within us.”
We all have a private place deep within ourselves that serves as an intimate meeting room for conversations with our Creator. For some it a safe place of deep quiet and peace, for others it takes the form of a still small voice that draws them into a state beyond the noise and clatter of the material world. When you surrender yourself to that sacred territory, your soul rises up to the surface and you get a glimpse at who you really are: a powerful, elegant spirit inspired and created by unconditional love and tasked, if you accept the challenge, with living out that loving nature. In that sacred space, you learn that your purpose in life is not a job but a response: love. You discover that your legacy and predominant spiritual DNA is unconditional love. The physical world, the particularities of your world, simply provides opportunities for you to showcase your core nature and the highest expression of what it means to be human.
When you write a check, send a box of protein bars for the hungry, donate an operating room microscope, or simply say a prayer; you exercise who you really are: a person acting out of love. You live out the vision of what the world would look like if unconditional love were in charge. Tangible results certainly count on the physical plane, especially in the lives of those you serve; but, the quality and consistency or your loving responses to the situations placed before you, pushes all of humanity forward on both the evolutionary and spiritual planes.
In Haiti, another hungry child always appears, another person with a life threatening illness always comes through the door, another natural disaster invariably sets down on the landscape, and another political crisis predictably engulfs reason. The Haitians declare, “Se la vi an Ayiti”; that’s life. And Haiti brims with life. While those who work on the ground in Haiti or contribute from across the pond celebrate the completion of a new building or herald the life saving benefits of a new medical program; a fresh crisis sneaks in through the back door. In the despair of the moment; you tear your hair out in between tears.
What looks like defeat in a whack-a-mole hell is really a blessed opportunity. Disrobed and unmasked, that villainous visitor is your angel issuing you a gold trimmed invitation to show up for your finest moment. At a time when your fingers are numb, your knees tremble and your heart seems too small to hold yet another painful concern; you are called upon to give Haiti your attention and to make manifest the highest of human qualities. Haiti is calling upon you to give your unique gift: writing a check, supplying needed equipment, or just saying a prayer. Whatever your offering, in its giving you not only address a critical material need, but you get to exercise the truth of who you really are as a divinely created and in-Spirited human being.
You are called upon to showcase what the finest contours of humanity look like. Those are the moments that get all of heaven up off the sofa, looking directly at you, and ready to burst into applause.
Haiti has called and selected YOU.
What will be your response?
What quality of your humanity will you let stand before the world?
What part of that divine spark within you, will you call forth in your response?
i Markings. Dag Hammarskjold. Translated by Leif Sjöberg & W. H. Auden, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, p. vii
ii Ibid., p. 213
The Rev. Dr. Joni M. Paterson holds a Ph.D. in Theology and is a United Church of Christ minister. She serves as Director of Development & Administration for The CRUDEM Foundation.