I read this article today about gang violence in El Salvador. It made me think about how many stories are in circulation regarding suffering in far away places, and how their sheer volume makes it hard to feel compassionate about all of them--we have to live at some point, running errands and making money, and stopping to feel properly empathetic, to consider whether our consumption is exacerbating the problem, or to wonder if contributing funds might help, becomes simply unbearable over time. Yet how unfortunate to feel myself becoming hardened!
I write about this now in the context of beginning another school year with a new crop of students. As the level 1 ESOL teacher, I see my students every morning first thing and thus become the default homeroom teacher/counselor/social worker for students. Students routinely ask me questions in the minutes before and after class on everything from free lunch to homecoming tickets. The harder cases are the ones where I have to ask the questions: why is Douglas sleeping? (Answer: working illegally long hours in the evenings to help the family put food on the table). Why is Maria so despondent? (Answer: in fear that his daughter has become too "loose" and Americanized, her father has been beating her). Why does Danny seem so angry? (Answer: in immigrating to the U.S. to flee his father's gang-related aspirations for him, he has been reunited with a mother he hasn't seen in 10 years--and after the initial joyful reunion, it has been a difficult and frustrating adjustment). My beginning students are disproportionately Central American in origin, and so stories like the NY Times article cited above are more than an abstraction--I see the impact of violence and poverty on my students' learning and behavior, which in turn has a direct impact on me.
I didn't choose this profession because of an unselfish desire to comfort the afflicted. I saw in it an opportunity to earn a living in something I enjoyed: I both love teaching and feel naturally gifted to do it well, and I am fascinated by the intersection of language and culture. It was only after being in my field for a few years that I even realized how essential it is to acknowledge what a huge impact the circumstances of my students' lives can have on their performance in school, and how I can never ignore that if I want to help them reach their best potential, academically or otherwise. I became connected to this community by accident, and I care about immigration, about Central American countries with their soaring murder rates, corruption, and horrifying poverty, not so much because I am compassionate and selfless, but because it affects me, actually and quite concretely. Trying to get a deeply angry seventeen-year-old boy to care about improving his writing has made it abundantly clear that I cannot separate myself from the woes of a far-off country.
I ended up here by accident rather than by any inherent goodness. However, I feel acutely that experiencing things like this--where I can directly observe the suffering of others because of real connections with those it most affects--is an essential part of helping me to become more loving, more compassionate, and a better Christian. I should do more good--I should find ways to serve outside of what I already do in my profession. So many people do that, and in this way their lives become interwoven with another community, and they learn to feel compassion and understanding for those who are in distinctly different circumstances from themselves. It is so natural to cling to others like us who are of similar faiths, professions, academic backgrounds, with similar interests. I, too, choose to spend the great majority of my time with those with whom I have the most in common, but I've come to see that I am simply too limited in my capacity for far-off compassion. I cannot understand or care about other people in a meaningful way without knowing them with some degree of intimacy.