The Ability to Feel

`I GET tired when I think of my country,'' a Laotian student told me, many years ago. It was a period when three princes were fighting each other for control of the remote Southeast Asian kingdom, with the United States in the thick of things for reasons that seemed terribly important then, and quite obscure today. The student had returned to Laos from the US to help build his country. But everything around him seemed chaotic, his fellow students had joined one side or the other, and several had been killed.

Today, of the three princes, only the ``Red Prince,'' Souphanouvong, survives, having abolished the monarchy and served awhile as president of the communist republic. Laos limps along, still under communist rule. I don't know what has happened to my friend.

But his words have stayed with me. So many things have been going on in the world to make me tired. If events in Laos tired my friend, the Vietnamese, next door, had even more reason to wish to stop thinking about their country. For years what I believed to be the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Vietnam engaged my sympathy and my passion. When friends I had known intimately over many years were killed or imprisoned, or died in the aftermath of the communist takeover, I found it painful to th ink about Vietnam and hesitated to contact even friends who survived and had to make their way in exile.

Then came a period of involvement in the struggle between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. It is years since I have reported on that conflict, but it continues, with much the same cast of characters.

And today? What of the Kurds, the Bangladeshis, the Iraqi refugees? The Afghans, the Burmese, the Sri Lankans? The millions of victims of African famine? The list could go on and on. How about the homeless or the hungry in America?

The first televised images of refugees on a sodden hillside shock the viewer and rouse compassion. But the cumulative effect is a kind of numbness. People talk of ``compassion fatigue.'' The problems become too big for an individual to comprehend or cope with.

Yet this is our world. These are our people, be they on the other side of the globe. Their fragile hopes, their crushing despair, do not stay comfortably isolated from us.

We know today, more than ever before, the interlinkedness of our world. Chernobyl or the destruction of the rain forest has its consequences for those of us in the industrialized world, just as surely as our extravagant use of paper or chopsticks or freon ultimately affects the African in his hut. We cannot afford to be numb. The ability to feel is the essential condition for being alive.

Which is why I am grateful for every illuminating flash, whether it comes by television or radio or the printed page, that takes me out of myself, out of my normal daily concerns and tells me of man's instinctive capacity for generosity, for deeds of kindness small or great. The GIs building shelters for the Kurds. The European doctors, working to save even one famine victim out of 10, defying the human reasoning that tells them it is hopeless. And closer to home, the extraordinary teacher that galvaniz es a class of inner-city children.

Besides, what an extraordinary flowering of freedom we have seen in the last few years, in places we had been reconciled to seeing in chains throughout this century, if not beyond. Even in China, as the second anniversary of Tiananmen approaches, an image from that terrible and tragic day remains burned in my memory. A lone, unarmed figure defies a Red Army tank, daring it to run him over. For a long time it was that figure that impressed me. But more recently I have been thinking of what must have gone through the minds of the soldiers in the tank. Brief though the moment may have been, there was a standoff. The tank moved a bit one way, moved a bit the other way. Its opponent stood his ground. Conscience was alive, and some day that conscience will save China.

It may be a tiny flame of hope, but as citizens of the world we have the right to warm ourselves at that flame. And if, as individuals, we feel the call to act, in whatever fields we may be working, we also have the right to know what we must do.

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