We have a new doctor staying with us who will be working and teaching at the government hospital in Mbale. We have cooked together the last two nights, pooling together whatever we can find each day in the outdoor market. There are plenty of bananas, avocados, rice and dried beans – all safe to eat if washed very well and rinsed in white vinegar. There is really no (safe) meat available unless I’m willing buy a chicken to kill and pluck myself. Today I found a man selling three cucumbers which was an incredible find. I bought all of them. I have finally gotten used to the smells of the market, a combination of rotting meat and fish, body odor, and excrement. It has taken almost 3 weeks for me not to smell it anymore.
Each night my new friend returns from her work at the Mbale Regional Hospital with more horror stories: They don’t monitor a patient’s vital signs while they are under anesthesia; Ether (something the developing world has not used for at least 50 years) is being used as an anesthetic; mothers in active labor are sandwiched together like sardines in the hallways and not allowed to cry out. Jay tells me of one young woman softly panting “Jesus, Jesus” who is harshly scolded and told to be quiet by the nurses. Another young woman enters the hospital with a baby half delivered and trapped inside her, the hospital staff afraid to touch her because she is HIV positive. The child is just one of the many deaths she has seen today.
Each day that my friend returns from her work at the government hospital, I see her face fall a little farther – with fatigue, with despair – confused and saddened by so much suffering. Perhaps if I could see my own face, I would see the same, slow crumbling.
I remember my first week. How I felt a rising panic, wondering how I would ever get through my time here. Jay has signed up for a six-month contract. She tells me she’s “not a religious person” but wants to know how a loving God could allow so much poverty and suffering. I tell her I don’t know, that I’m still struggling to find the answer to that same question. That perhaps faith means believing that God sees the bigger picture and trusting that He knows what He’s doing. She tells me her NGO sent two pediatricians to Mbale hospital last year and they were so distraught by what they saw in the pediatric ward that they quit and required counseling when they returned home. I can imagine that.
I share with her about the child who finally broke me, and how one of the nurses told me, “You have a strong heart. Some people can’t even enter the ward, some can’t get through even one day seeing these children, but it took almost two weeks to break yours.”
And that’s just what we see in the hospitals. In town I see the crippled, the maimed and disfigured, on every corner and sidewalk like some cruel display of circus acts. It’s so much easier to look away. To look too closely is to come undone. Even the best of us are as oblivious as we want to be, safely cocooned in a protective bubble of subjective misperception, our minds too eager to twist the truth, trying to make sense of what makes no sense.
If I allow myself to see the reality of poverty, starvation and disease, I have to make a conscious choice: To do something or to ignore it – which is inexcusable. We do have a choice. But too often we let the insignificant and petty details of our days distract us, perhaps hoping if we ignore it long enough we won’t notice anymore.
I don’t want to be anesthetized to it. It should be disturbing enough to make me gasp, to lose sleep over it. I don’t want to be immune to suffering in the hope it won’t hurt anymore. If I numb myself to not feel pain, perhaps I will become unable to feel at all.
If keeping my heart open means being hurt or wounded by suffering, then so be it.
Which brings me back to Jay’s question:
How can a loving God allow suffering?
He doesn’t. We do.