Second Thought: Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Death by Indifference


Every day, on my way up the walkway to my office, I happen by several smokers, beginning their day with a heart-starting breakfast of cigarettes and coffee. Last week, I greeted one gentleman with my usual preoccupied salutation.

“How’s it going?” I said absently.

“I have a terminal illness,” he said, drawing smoke deep into his lungs. I slowed and turned toward him, not sure how to respond. Fortunately, he filled in the vacuum of silence. “Other than that, I’m OK, I guess.”

Unnerved by his directness, I groped for some silver lining upon which to hang a few hopeful words. “Ought to be nice weather today,” I said, fumbling for the most benign topic possible. He stared at me — through me — unblinking.

“Supposed to rain, actually.”

I turned back toward the front door, eager to disengage from the uncomfortable exchange. “Well, try to have a good one,” I nodded, glancing up toward a sky swirling with clouds. In a few moments, I was in my office, but the unexpected tension lingered. I work at Samaritan House, a home for as many as 50 homeless and low-income people with HIV and AIDS. Every day, I’m surrounded by people who are carrying a virus that indiscriminately attacks their bodies. Still, somehow, I become inured to their situation from time to time.

Many of our residents are healthy enough that no one would know they are “sick,” but the spectrum of wellness is broad and striking among them. For some, HIV medications have allowed for a much-extended and improved quality of life, but with this come other complications such as heart problems, diabetes, neuropathy, and hepatitis, not to mention a host of substance abuse and mental health challenges. While there is life abundant, and while many residents celebrate every sunrise with unfathomable gratitude, it’s strangely easy to forget the gravity of their struggle.

My wife, an associate minister at a local church and third-year seminary student, is eight months pregnant with our first child. We don’t know if it’s a boy or girl, since both sonograms revealed a healthy fetus with legs modestly crossed. I am a doctoral student at the early stages of my dissertation, so some level of preoccupation or absent-mindedness is expected. As a grant writer and publicist, there are days when I have little direct contact with more than a handful of residents. I could find excuses to explain away my disconnect, but the only honest reason is that my own world tends to close in on me, and routine sometimes usurps true connection and engagement with the rich, tumultuous world around me.

I, like many of us, simply forget what the rest of the world wakes up to every day. For some, the sense of insularity is unconscious, while others go to greater lengths to construct a kinder, gentler false reality. The imminence of my first child’s arrival challenges my desire to impart wisdom, balanced against my need to protect. On one hand, I want to reveal the world’s beauty, while on the other, I only want to blot out its harshness.

The purity and innocence of a newborn stands in stark contrast to the shadow of lingering mortality. To spend the day surrounded by people struggling to find a morsel of hope, then to return home to the ripe roundness of my wife’s belly can make me question the wisdom of our decision to bring yet another fragile life into such a world.

Yet we are resolute. We are armed with the conviction, however naïve, that the world is basically good. Life is worth enduring the pain and suffering it brings, not just in spite of its risks, but because of them as well. Above all is the tiny but inextinguishable spark of hope that forever pushes us forward.

A recent article on philanthropy noted that many large foundations have reduced their annual gifts to nonprofits by as much as two-thirds. At the same time, the foundations are receiving as many as 10 times more requests for support than in the past. Many necessary nonprofits have closed their doors, while others dramatically scale back services. All the while, the government is reducing funding across the board. Resources of hundreds of agencies in our area alone are at a trickle, and we are choking on the fallout from our own negligence.

It would be so much easier to shrug off responsibility onto the government, the upper class, or some unnamed, faceless other, but if we hold a mirror up to the source of the problem, we would meet ourselves, face-to-face. In a culture where garbage is placed on the curb to be whisked silently away, and where elaborate networks of plumbing shuttle our sewage to parts unknown, we long for the magic bullet that will slay — or at least silence — our tireless demons. But our strength does not lie in our capacity to ignore or deny. It is in our compassion for others and in our will to work for positive change.

More fearsome to me than a world plagued with an irrepressible virus is one beset by indifference. This insidious tendency is more deadly and more infectious than any disease. It is one we all fight every day. I choose to believe — I hope — that we are greater than the sum of our shortcomings. And I pray for the sake of my child that we are shaken from our slumber.

Christian Piatt is a local freelance writer.

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