08 May 2014

living among suffering.

What does it mean to live among those who suffer? No, I'm not talking about that Starbucks order that went awry this morning. Or even the annoying event of locking your keys in your car while it's running. (Guilty.) While I don't enjoy these situations either, they're what the World Wide Web likes to dub First World Problems, problems that the privileged few of the world enjoy.

Since moving to Tanzania, our perspective on suffering has shifted tremendously, especially since we've witnessed so much loss in such a short period of time.

When we were living in Musoma for language school, we spent many Saturdays with an amazing group of children, known as Lisa's Pride. They, along with their caregivers, were HIV positive. Our Saturdays together gave them an outlet to play and chat, free from the stigma of the disease they carry.

Spending time with them felt like spending time with any group of children. They played board games and colored on any paper they could find. They often grabbed an old volleyball to toss around, with which they were constantly inventing new games. They loved water balloons.

It was easy to forget the effects of the disease they carried, save for the fact that a few appeared to be a bit underweight.

Of course, like anyone would, we grew attached to them. We knew their names. We learned which ones were bossy, which were shy. Their favorite games and friends were easily apparent.

We had been prepped to face trauma, or at least, varying forms of loss, from our orientation program in New York. At the time, we didn't know what that would look like. Selfishly, I hoped the loss we would come to know in Tanzania wouldn't be too painful or shocking.

But the teachers at our orientation program were right. The first loss was shocking.

Only a few months after being in Tanzania, we were terribly saddened to learn that one of the young girls in Lisa's Pride, who was only eight years old, died. Although she died of malaria, as we would later learn, her true cause of death was HIV, a virus that ravaged her immune system to the point that a healthy child could no longer fight off malaria.

Michael and I were stunned. "We just saw her two weeks ago," we told each other. "She seemed completely fine."

It took weeks before I could get her and her family off of my mind.

What to feel next?

As Americans, after the shock wears off, our first response is, "What can we do to stop this from happening again?" We are doers and we want to do something. I'm just like the rest of them. For weeks after we heard of this girl's death, I kept questioning Michael, "What can we do for these kids?" Buy mosquito nets for everyone? Teach them all about the drugs you can take to thwart mosquitos? Set up funds and sponsors for each child so they can always receive the best healthcare available to them?

Here's where the rub comes in: It's not about me saving every life I can find. Even though I want to, even though many others before me have wanted to do the same, it's not about that. Michael and I signed up for something much harder than swooping in to try to solve problems. We signed up for living among those who suffer.

Accompanying people through their suffering doesn't feel as good as that fancy word sounds. It feels like sitting by in agony as you watch good people, people who are trying to do the best they can, fail to provide for their children, lose their jobs, and grieve the loss of their loved ones who die needlessly. To add salt to the wound, you know the world could be better. All children could get an education. More people here could have decent jobs. Children don't need to die of malaria.

But what can we do? 

Solidarity with the poor is the most humbling position I have ever been in. It doesn't feel powerful. It doesn't feel like I'm standing for anything. When we were students at Boston College, solidarity with the poor was signing petitions and wearing t-shirts with clever slogans and turning off the electricity for a day a year. It felt trendy. It felt easy. And sometimes, surrounded by your like-minded friends, it feels fun.

The solidarity we know now is anything but fun. It forces you to look at yourself - American, privileged, college-educated - and realize there's truly not much you can do amidst the suffering. With all of your training, your specialized skill set, the hours you put into that senior thesis on political game theory... Well, it's a head-on collision to admit that none of that holds a candle to a mother who just lost her child for any reason, but especially for a death that was completely preventable.

Without doing anything, like any good American should, it's easy to despair. It's easy to throw up your hands and think, "Welp, I gave that a good try. Let's go back to doing something that's easy and obtainable."

But hope is different than that. Hope looks like praying. Hope looks like joining locals for meals in their homes, where they live. Hope looks like holding the hands of people who are grieving, singing and crying with them. Hope looks like entering into their suffering, if only for an hour.

Above all, hope looks like love. Yeah, that sounds cliche, but that's what we do. We do our best to love the locals as our own, even if there's no way we can fully understand them. Knowing the hard stuff just gets harder, we engage with them, learning about the issues faced by everyday Tanzanians, meeting those who are working towards a better future, and partnering with them. We act as their cheerleaders and incrementally, it gets better, even when we don't see it ourselves.

And with that, the next generation won't have to accompany so many who suffer. For now, this is the best we can "do".


  1. Dear Ashley,
    It is very inspiring and very touching to read "living among suffering." It is very well written!
    Michael and you are doing your "best." You, guys, are living one of the "best" ways of missionary life! After reading your writing, I can feel something relating to John 1:14 (And, the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.) Forgive me for commenting too religiously. I think many missionary Europeans, coming to Vietnam during the last few centuries, experienced the same feeling of powerlessness when they faced the poverty there. And, most of them just wanted to solve the "problems" but, then, they found out that it was their living among people that gave people hope (because local people felt that there were others sharing their lives and sharing their suffering). That is why it is said that "shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow."
    By the way, I ask you and Michael a favor. May I use your writings (this one and the others) in my homilies and my study? You, guys, might think about copyright and publishing your writings some day?
    Thank you for living among suffering and for sharing your experiences as well as your inspiration. God bless.
    Tino Nhan Tran

    1. Father Tino, Thank you so much for a wonderful comment! We definitely resonate with those feelings of powerlessness you described and hope that the joy that we share in with our Tanzanian neighbors and co-workers is doubled! Of course, you are more than welcome to use our writings in your homilies and studies. We are so grateful to you and to all of our friends who serve as a constant source of encouragement and support to us.


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