Friday, February 27, 2009

What Matters

I ran into a lady in the supermarket the other day who was cursing the food manufacturers for giving us so much to choose from that it added frustration to her life. What a dilemma to have.

Her comment, coupled with a powerful Ash Wednesday homily I heard the other day about giving to others got me to thinking about how we choose life priorities.

Imagine 29,000 children, the number that die daily around the world from preventable disease and starvation, standing in front of your home or place of business. As you watch them, they begin to die one by one. You and the people around you are horrified at the sight and look for ways to run to the children, to help them in any way you can. As you hold them, they die in your arms and your heart is filled with anguish as you seek ways to help them. Your adrenalin is pumping through your veins and you will do anything to make a difference - even if you can save only one child.

Now imagine the same scenario but this time you are blindfolded and restrained. You can hear the cries of the children as they die, their final moments filled with suffering and pain. You are told you can't help them and you hear yourself crying out to the children while cursing the people who refuse to allow you to help them. Your emotions are running high because you feel helpless to comfort the afflicted and you weep at the sound of their suffering.

Now imagine a third scenario. The children are still dying but they are not in front of you, so you can't see them or hear them. Perhaps your heart feels a little pain, sadness or pity at the thought of them suffering. Perhaps it doesn't. If it does, it is nowhere near the intensity of the first two scenarios that I described. You may not feel compelled to rush out to find a way to help them in an impactful way or if you do feel compelled, you probably schedule a contribution for some time in the future.

Where is the sense of urgency?

Is it like the old Zen riddle of a tree falling in the forest, where people ask the question "Does a falling tree make any sound if there is no one to hear it"?

Can you hear the sound of children suffering from poverty, disease and malnutrition crying out for help?

Can you hear the sound of battered women crying out for support and justice?

Can you hear the sound of the homeless, crying out for love and shelter?

Why not? To me, it seems that their voices are so loud I can hardly think.

Maybe if no one is around the tree when it falls, perhaps it truly doesn't make a sound.

But we know it does.

By the time you read this blog (assuming 10 minutes to read it), 200 children under the age of five will have died around the world from preventable disease and starvation (that's about 10.5 million children per year). At the same time, 67 women will have been beaten by abusers in the US alone (an estimated 3.9 million victims per year).

While all these things happen, more money will be spent on a cure for baldness and erectile dysfunction than on seeking solutions for the problems that afflict a great number of people around the world.

While it is true that conditions of the poor have improved over the years, they could improve much faster if more of us focus on what really matters.

Do we really know what matters?

We can be like the lady in the supermarket that I referred to earlier, complaining that we have too much to choose from.

We can agonize over the selections on a restaurant menu, wondering if it will be the lamb or the prime rib. During the 15 minutes you contemplate this important decision, 300 children will die of malnutrition, death bringing escape from the cruelty of one meal a day (or less than one meal for many).

We can spend a week wondering what color our next car will be and be in total angst over it, totally consumed by the unfairness of life that we should have so many options to choose from.  200,000 children will die from malnutrition during the week.

We can spend a month or more planning next year's vacation, making sure that every minute of every day is filled with the most bliss possible with the least amount of worry and downtime.  More than 870,000 children will die from starvation and disease during this timeframe.

We can spend a couple of years planning a wedding, knowing that 50% or more of them will fail anyway, making the money and time spent seem to be wasted.  If we take two years, more than 20 million children will die from starvation as we make plans.

Meanwhile, the pressure of these things bring real worry, sleepless nights, confusion and frustration.

How unfair life is, we think.

Meanwhile, the things in life that really matter will continue to not get our attention as much as they should.

The great irony is that much of what we enjoy in the 21st century has been built on the backs of the poor and destitute, either within their own country or after bringing them from one country to another.

Some of us look upon the rest of the world with a sense of "if they would only be more civilized, perhaps we could help them more or they could help themselves in a better way".

Meanwhile inside our own world, as the financial crisis hammers us, we worry about tough decisions before us:

  • having to buy less food for entertainment purposes (as opposed to food for nourishment)
  • being forced to make our car last another year - "oh the pain of this recession, I really wanted the car with the new satellite radio feature"
  • being forced to wait for the $2 million home until the banks loosen up their credit restrictions so that we can max ourselves out - I guess we'll have to suffer through the home we live in although some of us don't know how we'll make do with such a small Jacuzzi
  • maybe some of us will have to suffer through the 40 pairs of shoes we own
  • what about this golf bag - I can't be seen on the course with this piece of garbage?

Oh, the injustice of it all, we think - why are we suffering like this?

Meanwhile, good people in the western world lose their homes, wonder where the next meal comes from, lose healthcare benefits and unwillingly take a step closer to the way some cultures have lived their lives for centuries.

The point is that you don't have to go far to find people who are in need while we lament the loss of luxury.

If by some stroke of poor luck, we lost our electricity in the western world, think about what would happen here.

  • No fuel refining and therefore few usable vehicles once fuel stockpiles run out.
  • No heat or light in our homes for most of us.
  • Minimal healthcare.
  • Minimal clothing manufacturing.
  • Minimal food harvesting and distribution.
  • Minimal clean water.

As our society sinks down into the depths of our worst nightmares, we would turn to the rest of the world and say "Please help us - kindness and love for fellow man is what is most important in the world.  You can't allow us to suffer like this - it is inhuman and indecent.".

Oh, the wisdom that comes when the shoe is on the other foot.


We can assume that someone else will help them.  If we all assume this, then there are very few people actually helping those in need.

We can say we don't know how to help them. However, we are extremely creative when it comes to solving any other problem that confronts us.

We are always creative when we need to be for the things that are important to us.

The question is .... do we truly know what is important? 

Yours in service and servanthood.



  1. Harry,

    I was in awe as I read through your blog. What are our priorities in life are they to serve or be served. I live my life to serve as a father of 6 children we live our lives to help others. I applaud you in laying this out for the many people who are caught up in getting as opposed to giving.

    Peter Jarmics

  2. Hey Peter,

    Thank you for your very warm comments.

    I also thank you for your observation on the need to give versus the need to get.

    I think if we can achieve a major correction in the value of giving versus getting, then we can not only correct some challenges in the world, but we can avoid a repeat of many things in the world that keep coming back to haunt us.

    Take care and create a great day, Peter. Thank YOU for your service to others!


  3. Perfect. Just what we all need to remember. Thanks for a much needed grounding voice.

  4. Hey Jen,

    Thank you for your very kind comment.

    Take care,