Category Archives: Reflections on the World

Dirty Water: South Africa (Day 3-4)

The morning haze had settled over the ocean on the beach right behind our lodge.  The sand was chock full of treasures–brightly-colored seashells, sea glass, picturesque rocks and even a scary-looking jellyfish.  Yet despite being surrounded by water, I realized later, I was hardly thinking about it.

Stuff on the beach

The problem with water, and simultaneously the power of water, is that it creates all-encompassing effects that ripples throughout multiple levels of society, the environment, and the world as a whole.  Water is needed for everything you can possibly imagine that contributes to life on the planet– agriculture, geological formations, biodiversity, and survival.  As a result whenever a “water crisis” arises, we will always see multiple stakeholders fighting to ensure that their interests are provided for.

This is what Tuesday and Wednesday of our trip was really about.  We heard from numerous individuals telling us about different aspects of water usage and human interference in natural water flows.  We looked at the trend of South Africa’s management of the public’s access to water since 1994, the end of apartheid, and realized that although the data certainly showed a highly positive trend, the high proportion of missing data and of inconsistencies in defining “access,” meant that the numbers should be questioned.  We learned about the “water wars” throughout human history and debated about whether water can be considered an economic commodity.

We actually visited one of the primary examples of the vast number of stakeholders in water-related problems as we drove from Port Elizabeth to our second and final location of the trip, the city of George.  The drive along the coast next to the deep blue, sparkling sea gave us a glimpse of the natural beauty of South Africa, as we passed by vast plains of green framed by mountains in the distance.  We reached a particular section of beach where the Tauw river, running perpendicular to the sea, naturally flushed into the sea.  Dr. Dirk Roux led a discussion there of a few of the many problems surrounding this particular estuary.  The climate, the location relative to the beach, and the general scenery made this area prime real estate.  However, the natural flooding of the river, caused by heavy rains that either pushed the water above the normal river levels or which accumulated in the mountains and rushed down into the valley, posed serious risks to their property.  The government’s solution to that was that when the river began to approach a certain height (2.1 meters), they would open up a channel from the river to the ocean to allow the water to flow into the sea and the water level in the river to drop.

A beach en route to George.


Dr. Dirk Roux explaining the geography of the area.

It’s an understandable and by definition, a functional engineering solution.  But it’s not a biological one.  The Tauw river also connects to three lakes through channels that were dug between them.  These lakes have always been freshwater lakes.  In recent years, however, people have found marine saltwater species in these freshwater lakes.  Why?  Because of the artificial connection created between the river and the ocean that has created a backflow of species and ecosystem-mixing.  The presence of invasive species in the lakes poses unnatural threats to the native species.  The land in the flood plain as a whole is also very fertile, and thus, the community in the area is highly agricultural, one of the largest users of water.  And then there are the nature enthusiasts, those who gain from the use of the rivers or lakes for fishing, boating and other recreational activities.  So you can imagine a situation in which any solution made affects any of these 4 stakeholders: the conservationists, the homeowners, the farmers and the nature enthusiasts.

“Dirty” water is about much more than pollution.  It is about these problems of access, of grappling with natural forces like flooding, of the politics, the economic disparities, the human interactions.  It is a complex problem, much more so than any individual engineering or social science discipline.  And no artificial construct, channel, or one, easy “solution” is going to change it all.

Humans of Soweto On Sea and the Larger Struggle: South Africa (Day 2, Part 2)

The group of us students from MIT and NMMU with community workers in Soweto Square, the site of many anti-apartheid protests and struggle.
The group of us students from MIT and NMMU with community workers in Soweto Square, the site of many anti-apartheid protests and struggle.

The smiles in the picture above at the end of our transect walk through the Soweto On Sea community weren’t all happiness.  We were certainly humbled by the warm reception, incited by the desire to do something, but also disturbed by the mounds of trash, the broken abandoned houses where rapes and murders frequently occurred.

The community’s struggles reach back to times of apartheid in South Africa.  Because Soweto On Sea had been a difficult area for the police to penetrate, the square we were standing in had been the center of the anti-apartheid movement, filled with activists who were hiding from the police, rallying the locals and planning their next moves.  “Each week there would be a funeral for those who had died that week and a burial for those who had their funeral the previous week,” one of the NMMU students told us.  “It became the basis of the political platform and language.”

Deteriorating houses in Soweto On Sea
Deteriorating houses in Soweto On Sea

The irony of it all, he told us, was that most of these people who fought were now the same ones who were unemployed in the township: “Victory has not served those who were on the frontlines.”  When asked why, he struggled a little to answer, ultimately settling on his belief that the current parliamentary was no longer connected to the township.  “The people who fought at the time were not being educated,” he pointed out.  “They were busy planning attacks, sitting in prison, running from the police.  They can’t take part in the system now because they don’t have the education to be on the same playing field.  Now their only value to the parliamentarians is a voting majority, nothing else.”

The man from the small car wash came up to our group and emphatically pointed to the square behind him, “This place is the reason we have a black president now.”

The point of the day suddenly became clear: all of the issues that South Africa faced, just like any other country, were the result of their history.  As we returned to NMMU, the community workers and NMMU students filled in more of the gaps about this connection.  Later that evening we even heard from two activists who were prominent during the anti-apartheid struggles, Bongani Gxilishe and Winky Mgqibisa, both of whom had been involved in the famous student uprising of 1976, in which black students protested against the requirement to be educated in the Afrikaans Bantu education system that had been enforced by the Afrikaaners.

“During apartheid, education was different for different people.  It was meant to keep the blacks in different economic roles than the whites.  That difference in quality has remained stagnant.”

“My father was originally in the military before apartheid.  Then he stole their money and left to the North to be trained so he could come back and fight.  Come to think of it, I’m more fortunate now because my father’s father was a doctor and my mother’s father was a teacher.  So when my parents were growing up in the struggle, my grandparents ensured they were getting their education first.”

“I lost both of my parents when I was five.  In the culture of black people, my child is your child and I was taken in by my neighbors.  And it is because of them that I became what I am today, a firm believer in the Black Consciousness Movement.  It’s unfortunate that this history of the BC movement is now being distorted and students now don’t care.  Back then we were politicized at such a young age by what was happening around us.  You know that building across the road?  It is where most of the activists were tortured and killed.” 

The development crises that townships like Soweto On Sea faced today could then truly only be solved sustainably in the long run through education, a theme that came up again and again with many of the community workers and MIT students.  We were shocked to find kids in uniform walking around the neighborhood, not in school.  The community workers told stories of schools with 42 children in a ten-square-meter area, with the teacher not even being paid for the first five years of teaching.  “My child goes to this school,” she said.  “How is a teacher supposed to teach if she is hungry and frustrated without electricity?”  Another student stood up and cried, “Is there no over-sight to who is teaching in our schools?  People who are educated just leave the township and there is no inspiration for children who are hungry to go to school because they see no value.  There is not a culture of learning here.  You know this whole host of problems?  Everyone talks about them and how we need solutions.  But no one ever really works out those solutions.”

Indignation started to fill the room, and continued to follow us as we loaded onto the bus.  MIT and NMMU students were talking together, expressing their frustration by the problem, without a viable solution.  So when we arrived at Charles Duna Primary School, the atmosphere of desperation was looking for some answer, for a glimmer of hope.  And Nombulelo Sume, the principal of the school, gave us just that.  She told us the story of how she fought to balance the school’s lack of access to water with her fervent belief in placing the education of the children, “the poorest of the poor” first above all else.  Here’s a glimpse of what she had to face:

You could hear a quiet awe and empowerment that everyone felt as she told us of the challenges she faced and her ability to rally the community behind her.  Most of us could not imagine parents volunteering their time to carry buckets of water and manually flush the toilets in the school, just to ensure that their child could have an education after the government could not support that change.  Having just seen communities where education was completely disregarded, it was refreshing, inspiring to see how the indifference toward education could be overcome.  Because of Ms. Sume’s persistence, a representative from Coca-Cola’s rainwater harvesting program heard about the school.  Despite the fact that they had already filled their quota of 100 schools, the representative pushed ahead and listed Charles Duna Primary School as the 101st school.  As of July of last year, thanks to the program, the school finally had water flowing from their taps.

And her efforts didn’t stop there.  “One of our other community projects is a vegetable garden,” she said.  “When I started this school, I was burying a child each year.  When I asked their parents what they would eat, it was full of carbohydrates.  No fruits, no vegetables.  So we are using the school as a center of progress for the community.  We haven’t had a single HIV-related death now in 8 years.”  Nombulelo also talked about giving everything else she could to make the students competitive, like arts, drama, and sports programs (“We have a student who is now playing on the national soccer team!”).

Nombulele showed us that it is possible to make progress despite the overwhelming sense of complexity in the status quo:  “I ask for the richer schools’ old, used uniforms.  I find scraps of boxes and metal for the kids’ projects.  I am trying to build a library.  You know, you have to dispel the myth of ‘poor me, I can’t do anything because I don’t have anything.'”

Nombulele Sumo, the principal of Charles Duna Primary School, led the school through the lack of water and other resources while reshaping the community as a whole.
Nombulele Sumo, the principal of Charles Duna Primary School, led the school through the lack of water and other resources while reshaping the community as a whole.

When we passed by a room under reconstruction, she said, “It’s going to be my future science lab.  You have to dream, right?”


MIT Terrascope is setting up a Principal’s Discretionary Fund.  We would like to raise at least $1000 or about 10,000 Rand for Nombulele to continue the amazing work she has done for the children.  Please contact me if you would like to donate!

Cancun in Color

In the last few weeks of 2013, I was lucky enough to do something that most people don’t have the opportunity to do.  Yes, this does have something to do with the fact that in these weeks I traveled to Cancun, Mexico, or “MEH-HEE-KOH,” as our extremely enthusiastic AirTran flight attendant insisted on yelling through the intercom.  He also took it upon himself to lighten up our travel with the following well-delivered jokes:

  1. We hope you fly AirTran next time, but even if you don’t, please don’t fly Delta– it stands for “Delayed-Even-Later-Than-AirTran.” 
  2. Please turn your phones on airplane mode ASAP, unless, of course, you have T-Mobile because your service is so bad you probably won’t even get the text or call before the plane started. 
  3. Are any of you feeling too chilly on the flight?  Raise your hands if you are! [most passengers raise their hands]  Okay great, now just stretch your arm a little further, and you can close that fan right above your seat. 
  4. Adults if you’re traveling with children, make sure you put your oxygen mask first and then put it on your favorite child.  Children, pay attention, this is how you’ll find out who’s the favorite.  
  5. Ladies and gentleman, in one of your back-seat pockets we have placed $100.  [entire plane begins rummaging through the pocket in front of them] Anyone find it yet? No? Well, just kidding, there is no $100, but now that you’re there you might as well go ahead and take out that safety card that’s right next to your hand and read along!

Yes, he was quite the flight attendant. 

Dolphin Love
Photo credit: photographers at Dolphinaris, Cancun

And it was also that despite the fact that I am afraid of heights, I impulsively decided to go para-sailing with the rest of the family.  After breaking my head over whether or not to take camera in the jet ski to the boat from which we would go up in the parachute, I finally decided to take the risk.  I began to question this a little bit as we bounced through crazy waves and I held on to the driver for dear life while all I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears.  But when we finally reached hundreds of feet above the water and could see the entire beach below me, the vast expanse of the sea, and the little boat looked like an ant, I had no regrets.  Especially when I sat back and suddenly realized the profound silence.  The bustle of cars, the motor of the boat, the crashing of the waves, the shouts of tourists on the beach–all of it suddenly disappeared so high above the ground. 

The parachute above our heads in the sky.
The parachute above our heads in the sky.

But what was truly amazing about this trip was the fact that for the first time ever a huge contingent of my family in the U.S. was taking a vacation–together.  That meant 4 families, consisting of a total of 8 parents and 9 kids, were going to finally, after years of planned vacations not working out for some reason or another, have a tropical beach adventure together.  Yes, it’s true that as long as we were together, it didn’t really matter where we were, but no one was complaining about Cancun. 🙂

Morning sky at the resort.
Morning sky at the resort.

Other than para-sailing and swimming with the dolphins, the most memorable moments of the trip were the ones when we decided to stay and enjoy everything the resort had to offer.  That meant jumping into the pool right after breakfast, walking right behind the resort straight onto beautiful white sand and swimming in the ocean, and even jumping onto stage at the hotel’s karaoke night.  

On one night after dinner, we all walked outside to enjoy the warm night air and watch the moonlight shimmer across the waves as they crashed onto the shore.  On our way back inside we saw two Mexican men at one of the many booths selling various trinkets and souvenirs.  One of them was sitting, bent over with paint all over his fingers, the other standing next to him smiling and greeting every hotel guest that passed by.  I was drawn toward the table for all of the beautiful paintings of Cancun that I saw on the table and I soon realized that these were finger paintings.  Everything–the blending of colors in the sunset sky, the texture of rocks on the beach– was all from his fingers. 

The man standing up had a jolly sort of smile and seemed sort of like a Mexican Santa Claus to me.  He introduced himself as Alberto and the painter as Freddie.  As we ooh-ed and aah-ed over the scenes, one of us asked how much.  Alberto told us that the larger tiles we were looking at (“Made in Mexico,” he said with a mischievous smile, turning it over to show us the inscription.  “Not China or Hong Kong or Japan.”) were thirty.  One of my uncles decided to be facetious and asked, “Dollars or pesos?” 

Alberto didn’t even blink.  “Euros,” he said. 

Everyone burst out laughing, thrilled that he had outwitted my uncle, who is known in the family to have the smart comebacks.  Alberto smiled and put his hand on his chest, bowing his head a little.  I had seen many of the locals make that gesture when they were greeting each other or expressing any sort of strong emotion.  When my aunt told Alberto that she really liked that gesture, he simply said, “It just means that it comes from the heart.”

All this time, Freddie silently continued painting, squirting his oil paints and periodically wiping his fingers to start a new color.  As the adults all sat down on the steps next to the booth while us kids continued to figure out which paintings we wanted, Alberto chattered away, asking us what language we were speaking (yes, there was a Kannada/Canada mix-up), what each of our names are, how we are related to each other, where each of the families are from.  One of my cousins from Texas had a conversation with him in Spanish which I somewhat followed, realizing it was basically a conversation about why Mexican Spanish was better than Spanish… Spanish.  Slowly, we also found out that Freddie had been painting for about ten years now and that the two of them had been friends for eight.  They go from hotel to hotel each day and as people buy paintings, Freddie just continues to paint and replace them.   

“We try to personalize them, if people want to give the painting to someone,” said Alberto.  “Whatever you want us to write, whatever makes it special to you–we work for you, for your satisfaction.” He put his hand on his heart again and grinned. 

Freddie’s silence perked my interest and I sat next to him.  It took a while to extract more than few-word phrases from him, but I soon learned that Freddie had learned how to paint from his grandfather.  “My whole family paints,” he said, wiping his fingers on a paper towel.  In fact, he had really disliked painting when he was little. 

I had stopped asking questions and given up hope that he would strike up a conversation, when suddenly he said, “My son paints too.  I taught him.”  I asked if his son was as good as him, and he grinned and nodded. 

Meanwhile, most of us had picked the paintings we wanted.  I had decided on a beautiful sunset painting, but I was wavering a bit because there was a beautiful reddish painting of the lagoon.  As Alberto explained, Cancun was a city explicitly built thirty years ago around a lagoon, and both this and the Caribbean Sea provided spectacular views.  On a whim, I asked Freddie which painting of all the ones he had ever done was his favorite.  And of course, he pointed to the painting of the lagoon.  “It doesn’t sell as much as the others.  But there is so much detail.  More fine detail than any of the other paintings I have done.  That’s why I love it the most.”

Painting 1In the end, I ended up taking both, and though he had given us a group discount, I knew my mom would give him the original amounts.  As she told me, it was certainly true that we paid money all the time for things that in comparison were much less inspiring.  Here was a gifted talent and two men honorably keeping it alive, a cause well worth it.  An hour or so after we first Painting 2came up to the booth, it was just my mom and me sitting on the steps.  The ocean breeze felt warm on our faces as we watched Freddie finish his sunset painting.  My mom asked Alberto whether he had any children.

“One girl,” he said, “And that’s enough!”  The four of us laughed. 

And then Alberto’s face became more serious.  “It’s enough for Mexico.  It is difficult if you want to support more than one child here.  In America, you would get paid by the hour, right?  Everyone who works at this hotel– waiters, cooks, cleaners– everyone would be paid some $8-9 per hour, no?” He pointed to the ground.  “Here, they get paid that for one day.  And so this,” he said, pointing to the two of them, “is much better.  We have to pay to be here in this hotel, but it is much better than the markets where there are people yelling, so much pressure.” 

I had asked Freddie if he would draw a conch shell on the beach.  He seemed unsure, but not wanting to disappoint, he picked up a small brush, the first time I’d seen him use one.  He closed his eyes for a good ten seconds, and then slowly traced an outline of the shell on the beach.  His lettering in the corner, “Cancun 2013,” was steady and precise.  When he finished, he looked up, and I saw that his eyes were bright-red and watering.  “They are burning,” he said, laughing as he rubbed his eyes. 

And in that moment, everything suddenly shifted into a perspective.  The issues we had in the hotel booking 4 rooms next to each other, the lack of a variety of choices of vegetarian food, all of the little things that had been bothering us or caused arguments with hotel staff in the past few days, seemed to come from a completely different world next to this man with a gift rubbing his eyes after a long day of nothing but painting.  I was “tired” from a day of frolicking in the ocean and para-sailing.  He was tired.

I asked if they had any contact information, an email or something.  Alberto ripped off a sheet of paper and wrote, “Jose Torres” on one line and “Policarpio Jimenez” on the second line.  “Jose was my grandfather’s name,” said Alberto.  “And Policarpio is Freddie’s real name.  Find us on Facebook.”  Of course.  We may live in entirely different worlds, but there was always Facebook.

“Policarpio,” I said, turning to Freddie.  “What does that mean?”

“Hmm.  Sweet and sexy, I think,” said Freddie, bursting into laughter. 

Alberto, me, and Freddie.
Alberto, me, and Freddie.

Empathy: The “Why,” Not the “What”

A week ago, an article was published on CNN that began making its way through my Facebook feed.  The article is titled, “Why lasting compassion matters” and is a commentary written by Jason Marsh.  Always intrigued by any piece of journalism that actually brings up compassion head-on, I clicked the link.

In the article, Marsh talks about the tragedy of the 19 Arizona firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who died while trying to fight a wildfire.  While the media fully covered the men, their hard work, and their loved ones’ sorrow, Marsh pointed out that the coverage might disappear within a matter of days.  In fact, it’s already started happening.  In the cafeteria at my office where the TVs usually play CNN, the mammoth coverage of the Zimmerman trial overshadows almost any other news.  The San Francisco plane crash and the Canadian train explosion are two of several other tragedies that have all surfaced in this time, leaving us to wonder where to focus our thoughts, our sympathy.

Marsh argues in his article for the importance of understanding how to keep these tragedies at the forefront of our collective, social psyche because he says that it is the future of this psychological effect which determines our response to it and our desire to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.  He cites an older study in psychology which suggested the extent to which we emotionally respond to a tragedy is correlated with how specific the descriptions are of the people involved in them.  A picture and description of a little girl starving in Africa elicited significantly more donations than a paragraph of statistics that explicitly brought up high rates of starvation throughout the continent.  Ultimately, Marsh concludes that stories should have more specifics, more images, more details so that we can relate to them and feel the compassion that we should.

But should we really respond to things only because they remind us of ourselves, or simply because we can connect them to our own experiences?   That’s understandably our natural inclination, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.  And just because that’s often the way our minds work, should journalism and leaders of society really just cater to that?

When I read this article, I was reminded of a piece in the New Yorker from a couple of months ago titled the “Case Against Empathy,” by Paul Bloom.  I strongly believe that empathy is at the core of our spirit and a measure of our humanity, so of course I approached this piece with more than slight skepticism, but my love for reading things that force me to challenge my own convictions eventually won me over.

At the center of empathy is the idea of placing yourself in another’s shoes.  Much of our motivations to do things for others stems from us imagining ourselves in their situation, allowing us to understand the pain, happiness, sorrow, or anger they feel.  Which is why we have leaders like President Obama, whose words Bloom cites several times in the beginning of the piece, claiming that the world would be a much better place if people had empathy for each other.  Ultimately, empathy is what inspires us to act.  It’s our “why.”

But, as Bloom points out, what determines “what” those actions actually are?  Doesn’t it depend on who you empathize with, or why you’re empathizing with them?  And if we were to act simply out of blind emotion, we could end up doing more harm than good.  Connecting back to Marsh’s arguments, the problem with motivations being born simply through empathy is seen in the very results of those psychological studies he cited.  Indeed, the issue is the very fact that we are naturally more inclined to act for the girl who’s starving, whose picture we see the girl who perhaps reminds us of our little sister or daughter–all this, simply because of our ability to relate much more easily than when we hear the statistic according to Bloom that as many as thirteen times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die each day from malnutrition around the world.

As Bloom himself acknowledges at the end, the point is not that empathy is wrong, or that our world should be empathy-less.  It’s that empathy should not be the only input to morality.  We need empathy to motivate us to act, and we need it for our relationships with those around us, but to truly do good in the future you need more than just the strong emotional response you get when you can complete understand another person’s situation.  You need good judgment, an understanding of fairness and justice, and of course, rationality.

In the piece, Bloom gives the example of the Sandy Hook shootings for which the town of Newton received so many donations of stuffed animals and children’s toys that they didn’t have enough people to give them to.  Meanwhile– and this is perhaps my favorite line of the article–“almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent. Many of the same kindly strangers who paid for Baby Jessica’s [the baby who fell into a well in Texas in 1987] medical needs support cuts to state Medicaid programs—cuts that will affect millions. Perhaps fifty million Americans will be stricken next year by food-borne illness, yet budget reductions mean that the F.D.A. will be conducting two thousand fewer safety inspections. Even more invisibly, next year the average American will release about twenty metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and many in Congress seek to loosen restrictions on greenhouse gases even further.”  

Of course this is not even a glimpse of a suggestion that it’s wrong to feel so strongly for the children at Sandy Hook or the victims of Hurricane Katrina or the genocide victims in Darfur.  What’s concerning is that the outpouring of empathy that people are capable of seems to be restricted to certain people, certain tragedies, and certain times.

"The Alchemist" sculpture in honor of Officer Sean Collier.
“The Alchemist” sculpture decorated in honor of Officer Sean Collier.

I recently realized how guilty I myself am of the narrow-minded effects of empathy.  The third week of April 2013 will forever remain etched in my mind and the memories of those in Boston and at MIT– the week when we first witnessed the two bombs that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and then, a few days later, the shooting of our police officer, Sean Collier, and the shutdown of our school and city for the police-led manhunt that culminated in the final capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the death of his accomplice and brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.  I will always vividly remember being interrupted in the middle of a dance practice by a text on that Patriot’s Day, April 15th that bombs had exploded at the marathon.  I will never forget how frantically I began texting, calling, emailing anyone and everyone I knew to make sure they were safe.  College students in the Boston/Cambridge area play a large role in volunteering for the event, and I had friends, including my own roommate, whom I knew would be there at some point during the day.  Four nights later, we went through the same experience when we heard that there had been a shooting on our very own campus.  The rest of the night became a blur of news reports, the police scanner radio, and constant Facebook updates.

I actually had to catch a flight back home to St. Louis for a dance performance the very next day and until four hours before my flight that seemed impossible– no cabs were running in Cambridge or Boston.  When they finally re-opened, I wavered back and forth for a long time, especially because the police still hadn’t caught the younger brother yet, and I didn’t know what kind of trouble I would run into.  Finally, I decided to go home.

Needless to say, although I was in St. Louis for the weekend, my mind was entirely in Boston.  And thus I was shocked by how little of the conversation around me in St. Louis was about the tragedy that had unfolded in my home-away-from-home.  Sure, people would ask about it when they met me, remember what they had seen on CNN and ask about what the current situation was, but that was pretty much it.  For the first time I realized that even though our world has grown smaller and flatter, the distance between people and places remains just as undeniably far— my perception of the situation would never be shared by someone who lived halfway across the country.  Those who were relatively well-versed in current events would turn their thoughts to attempting to fathom the significance of what had happened, and then continue on their lives and the people/places tangential to them.  It was just natural.

Copley Square Memorial- Honoring the four victims who lost their lives in events of marathon week.
Copley Square Memorial- Honoring the four victims who lost their lives in events of marathon week.
Vice President Joe Biden at the memorial service for Officer Collier.
Vice President Joe Biden at the memorial service for Officer Collier.

Meanwhile I would soon go back to MIT, take part in memorial services, and visit the Copley Square Memorial near the finish line several times on sudden impulses.  I would eventually become so inspired by the tireless work of my biochemistry professor, Dr. Michael Yaffe, a trauma surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, in the aftermath of the bombings that I wrote my final paper in another class on the response of Boston’s world-renowned trauma centers to the marathon bombings from the perspective of several trauma surgeons across the city.  Interviewing them was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience, and I knew that nothing I wrote could do justice to their incredible work.

The words of Martin Richard- the 8-year-old boy who died in the bomb blasts.
The words of Martin Richard- the 8-year-old boy who died in the bomb blasts.
Red Sox hats at Copley Square- #BostonStrong
Red Sox hats at Copley Square- #BostonStrong
Here to pay respects at Officer Collier's memorial service.
Here to pay respects at Officer Collier’s memorial service.

That was me in April.  And here I am in July, having barely read two news stories on the San Francisco plane crash and only heard one radio news segment on the Alaska and Canadian tragedies.  I unconsciously fit that same mold of people who frustrated me when I came back to St. Louis just a few months ago.  It’s so easy to slide into routines and become so buried in the immediately surrounding world that it seems that the problems in that space are the problems of the world.

When I was interviewing for my final paper, I talked a trauma surgeon at Mass General Hospital, Dr. Peter Fagenholz, who was one of the first medical professionals to give a press conference after victims had been rushed to the various hospitals in the area.  When I asked him whether they were prepared for a mass casualty event like this one, his words shook me: “I’ll be totally honest.  I don’t really find it to be all that different on a patient-to-patient basis from what I do everyday.  Everyday I see someone in trauma who didn’t expect to be there, who’s having something terrible happen to them.  You have to explain it to them if they’re in a state to talk to you, or to their family if they’re not. We do that every single day.  [The bombings were] dramatic and got a lot of media coverage.  Obviously it’s different since it’s intentional and targeted.  But whether you’re one of however many people who got blown up and lost your leg or whether you fell off your motorcycle and lost your leg, to you it’s probably more similar than different.”

Dr. David Mooney, at the Children’s Hospital, a Level 1 pediatric trauma center, echoed those sentiments: “These kids are really lucky.  They were 1.5 miles from the best children’s hospital in the world.  Three-fourths of the kids who get hurt never get to a children’s hospital.  They’re cared for in adult hospitals where people don’t have training and the resources we have.  I wish that society tried as hard to prevent the everyday kid from getting hurt as much as they pour into tragedies like this one.  It would save a lot of lives if that happened.”

The American flag flying high over the memorial for Officer Collier.
The American flag flying high over the memorial for Officer Collier.

The small stories of tragedies, successes, joys and sorrows that happen everyday in lives around the world are no less significant than those that occasionally shake us awake by their magnitude and bring us together with our humanity.  When we view the world as larger than our lives and the lives of those around us, we won’t need pictures and descriptions to motivate our moral actions.  Our empathy for humankind as a whole and our deeply ingrained understanding of the intricacies of culture and society will naturally lead us to push our world toward the brighter future we all dream of.


For similar discussions, see my thoughts on another tragedy that hit India and women all over the world, earlier this year: “Her Name Was Jyoti Singh Pandey”

Her Name Was Jyoti Singh Pandey.

Her name was Jyoti Singh Pandey.

It’s an image and sentence that has been circulating Facebook and other social media, stemming from the recent decision by the Indian government to ban the media from publishing “Damini’s” real name.

Damini.  Lightning.  Although this nickname originally stems from the 1993 film of this name in which the heroine witnesses a rape of a servant woman and fights for her justice, the name was appropriate for Delhi rape victim for a different reason as well.  Her experience has wreaked a complete storm across India and the rest of the world, quickly and sharply.  The news has shaken people out of the growing indifference to these crimes, like a lightning storm itself, so that people sat up straight, horror growing in their minds.  It has unearthed a basic, deeply-rooted sympathy stemming from somewhere deep inside the human conscience, which is often buried underneath other concerns of life, business, family, and success.  The problem is if, like lightning, this awakening leaves as quickly as it came.  The inherent indignation and anger boiling blood should not simply flash and then go away, leaving the same calmness, the same cool indifference.

The status quo is wrong, but people already know that.  It’s not a lack of knowledge that plagues us; it’s a lack of memory.  An incident brings back these memories and with them the same seething horror, but then like a wave the incident recedes somewhere far back in our minds.  Then the same fear in every girl’s mind as she walks on a lonely street, the same blame on a girl’s “provocative” clothing or makeup return– not from ignorance but from forgetfulness.  But we can’t forget.

It is so easy to let our daily lives take over us and block these tragedies by pushing them into the past.  It’s not that we don’t care about the issues or that we explicitly condone them, but when tragedies are not happening, they are easier to unconsciously brush aside.  Not only for this rape, but also for the unforgivable number of shootings this country as witnessed in the past year, embassy attacks like the one in Benghazi, and natural disasters, it seems that only the magnitude and frequency of these events create any action.  Only after all the shootings we experienced last year did a real momentum for gun control legislation emerge in Washington.  Only after the suffering following Hurricane Katrina did the proactive nature of the national government toward natural disasters become so important.  The bottom line remains the same: the pervasive nature of problems in our society does not preclude us from having a consistent concern for them.  Rape in this world is not a problem only when one of the cases comes to the forefront of our society; it’s a problem every day, everywhere, for more people than we may every know.  We owe it to them and ourselves to remember that.

“Damini” may exemplify the spirit of the girl who fought until the very end, but for what we should take away from this incident, her real name is more important: Jyoti.  “Jyoti” is not lightning, but light.  A light of constancy, of awareness, of unwavering remembrance.

Jyoti.  Light.  Pure, awakened, eternal.

Voting Fever

I had a terrible case of voting fever today.  Voting fever: a condition in which one’s ability and decision to vote causes severe emotional attachments to the map of the presidential race.  It would have been much more tolerable had this been all I was doing.  As a newly-voting college student, the worst possible thing that could have happened to me on election day did– I have a paper due tomorrow.  How could I be expected to concentrate when states were changing colors before my eyes?

It’s not that I have never paid attention to the presidential elections before; in fact that is pretty far from the truth.  There is just something different about knowing that this time, your pen, your dark-filled bubbles, your choice will actually enter the pool of votes and make a difference.  Something invigorating, exhilarating.  Something that influenced me to run around MIT’s campus for an entire day trying to find a place to notarize my absentee ballot on a day when I had multiple exams.  Why anyone who has the ability to vote would not do so is beyond me.  For how can we discuss, complain and contemplate our government and our future as a country knowing that we hypocritically did not try to affect it when we were given the chance?

After hours of constantly refreshing, exclaiming when a state’s current numbers switched to an Obama-majority, expressing frustration when the first group of states counted all turned red (in case my affiliation wasn’t clear already, here you go 🙂 ), the end came quickly.  With every state that turned blue, my heart went back and forth between hoping and not daring to hope, and suddenly, before I knew it, the world declared that it was over.  As of my first election, I am one for one.  As I wait for the speeches to begin, I realize there are few things I would not give to be in that massive crowd of people with waving flags, grinning faces, and upbeat music.

If I may be so bold, I have one request for this country.  Although, we know the man who will be in the White House for the next four years, we still do not know the results of the popular vote.  News channels are already declaring that President Obama will win the popular vote, but I think this is a dangerous prediction to make without knowing the results.  Regardless of that result, however, the constitutional winner of this election is now President Obama.  Even if Romney and his supporters continue to complain for the next few weeks that this should have actually been his presidency by the popular vote, it really doesn’t matter; according to the Constitution, Obama is the winner.  After that, the best, most effective thing you or I can do is embrace this fact, and work to ensure that our ideals are reflected in the progress of this nation.  I make this claim independent of the winner of the election.  After the selection of our president, nothing can be gained from extending the ugly bickering.  The hope and change, the movement forward depends on us and our cooperation.  No matter what each candidate promises, no single man can take upon the challenges facing this country and completely turn it around.  Let’s pledge to move forward from this moment, work together, and help our president help us.


Update (post-Romney speech):  Thank you Mitt Romney for a short, gracious speech with little political rhetoric.  I hope that you, your supporters and people on both sides of the aisle live up to your words of moving forward.

Can We Be Done Now?

At approximately 9:30 AM US Central time today, I woke up.  Like every morning, I rolled over and picked up the stuffed animals that were lying on the floor (I have been told numerous times about my sleep habits– blanket hog, kicker, and apparently, pusher-of-stuffed-animals-off-the-bed).  Also like every morning, I reached under my pillow and pulled out my cell phone, to see the usual texts, emails, news stories, etc., that I had received over night.  And again, as usual, I deemed it too early actually get out of bed, and decided to go back to sleep after cleaning up my notification window.

Except for the fact that I had gotten a CNN headline alert which told me that less than an hour before, there had been a shooting in front of the Empire State Building in New York City.  And despite the incredible heaviness in my head induced by my desire to sleep another hour, I was definitely mentally awakened.  When my mother came up a bit later to force me out of bed, I told her in a still sleepy voice, “Did you know there was another shooting?”  She thought I was talking in my sleep.  That I was dreaming.  I wish.

Aftermath of the shooting earlier this morning, which started when Jeffrey Johnson, fired from his job a year ago, shot and killed his former co-worker–picture from the New York Times.

So, what I really want to ask is, is it time yet?  Is it “bad enough” yet?  Are three shooting incidents within the past three months enough now for leaders across this country to go beyond their speeches (well-intentioned, I know) in which we are told that this is an ordeal, a tragedy– that their heart goes out to the families of the victims?  I want to know, if I can ever stop adding these incidents to my memory, like files in a cabinet– the Sikh Gurudhwar in Wisconsin, the Dark Knight movie theater in Colorado, Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others in Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and so many others.

I, for one, am tired of hearing, guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  Not to point out logical fallacies or anything, but you need a person to pull the trigger.  Earlier this summer, I had been utterly shocked when I spoke to some college students in Singapore who had been taught in China that the majority of the U.S. population owns guns.  In reality, of all the people I know in this world, I can think of only one who owned a gun, as far as I know.  Yet I suppose such a misleading statement seems justified in the minds of those who have never actually been here.  I know also that there are many in this country who do own guns with absolutely no malicious intent.  But I ask, with complete deference to varying opinions and out of utter curiosity, is the right to easy access to a gun more important than preventing (or at least, drastically decreasing) the deaths of others?

I am not so naive as to believe that the simple establishment and enforcement of a gun control policy will completely eradicate such tragedies forever.  There are always wills and ways.  Nor do I believe that the answer is the other extreme– banning all guns for anyone, anywhere.  But I refuse to accept that the status quo is a natural, unavoidable consequence of the human condition.  I find it painful to look back on these incidents and wonder why we don’t do anything.   I cannot look future generations in the eye and say that I’m proud of the past we are giving them, when I know that a solution to a very real problem could have been found, and we stood by and let it happen anyway. Can you?