Japan and a Tin Cup in Kuala Lumpur

There is so much I want to write to you guys now. I want to write about the feelings of travel, jet lag and the thoughts I have about doing this better next time. I want to write about how it feels to be back home. I want to write about how much you all improved my trip by commenting, emailing and checking in with me in the various ways that you did. But today, I am thinking about Japan and the poor, blind man I passed in the center of a street in Kuala Lumpur.

I passed many people in the streets in Malaysia who needed money. I gave it when I had it. I broke big bills so that it was easier to put something into the cups I passed. I did this without thinking really. People need our help. We should give it to them. People.

On my last evening in KL, as I was walking through the Indian street market, I bent down to put some ringgits into a man’s cup who was clearly blind. He was quite skinny, wearing dirty old clothing and his cup was tin and beaten up. He was not that different from others I had passed…or had seen in pictures from the comfort of my home in the United States. But something struck me that night that struck me again this morning as I was watching the news pouring out of Japan this morning…news about numbers confirmed dead, numbers in shelters and the impact on the stock market. Squeezed into the news stories are single line quotes about actual people in the shelters. For the most part, I note the tragedy and don’t really feel connected to it. It’s not human.

The news helps disconnect us from the tragedy. It reduces it to statistics and facts, peppered with single lines of human interest. We feel compassion, but not connection. As I watched the news it occurred to me that I have dropped money in Haiti’s cup and walked away. I have dropped money in New Zealand’s cup and walked away. As I plan to give to the Japan relief effort, I already know that I will be walking away from their tragedy too. Their tragedy continues…I move on.

Today, one of the single lines in one of the stories was about a woman in a shelter in Japan, one of 450,000 currently living in shelters. She cried because someone she barely knew gave her water and shelter. She cried because there was humanity in the middle of chaos.

This is what is missing in all of this for me…the humanity. The 450,000 in shelters have stories. They are human. For them, the devastation is far from over. The nuclear plants alone leave this country in horrific limbo. But even if this was not the case, what do they have to look forward to when they leave the shelter? And what are the stories of courage, hope and community. They are there and it is in those stories that we feel our connection to people we have never met.

The press is not charged with connecting us to each other, of course. They are delivering the news, in the most sensational way possible. They have a business to run, which is why they move on to the next tragedy. That is why the earthquake in New Zealand, tiny by comparison, but enormous to the people impacted, has fallen off the radar in all major news outlets. The news is not about people, it is about what is the most dramatic right now.

The man on the street in Kuala Lumpur has stayed with me. I don’t know his story, and for some reason that matters to me now. I think it is a mistake to allow the news agencies to hold the stories for us of these tragedies.

We need our storytellers.


1 thought on “Japan and a Tin Cup in Kuala Lumpur

  1. Tragedy. I have read a lot of studies and the fact is that our brains are wired to care about 1, not about many. Given the choice of donating to relieve the suffering of a single human being, or two, people give more to the one. The more the suffering multiplies, the more we are disconnected from it. This is a fact of the human brain. I have thought a lot about it and maybe there are some advantages. If our concern grows with each added person, soon we would be overwhelmed and perhaps paralyzed from doing any good. Perhaps it is important that we continue with our lives – it is certainly necessary. On the other hand, I so admire those who devote their lives (or a portion of them) to alleviating just this type of suffering. (current reference – "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris)

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