Do you ever ponder, you who rage in self-pity, against whom your measuring rod is fixed? When I was in Africa, one of the many times, I had a driver for my wife and my family. We had only one car and my wife and I worked different hours and my little boy had to go to school across town, and Ibrahim – that was his name – helped us get all those places on time. For him, growing up and attempting to find a place in that hard land, the job was probably a luxury. Air conditioning and out from under the pounding sun; we paid him on time (and extra for overtime, bonuses and gifts for Ramadan and Eid); he earned more than mayors or parliamentarians. “I am almost finished with my house!” he once told me, beaming with pride. A place he built through discipline and restraint to be an anchor in uncertain times.
Yes, Ibrahim could have been considered among the privileged in comparison to the privations of so many people on the dark continent. I say this not to boast, but perhaps as a defense against my sense of profound guilt. You see Ibrahim also had a son, and his boy was the same age as mine. Often in the car driving to and fro, my son saying “Ibrahim, did you know that dolphins can talk? I’m going to be a scientist!”, I couldn’t help but consider the differences in the way the two children were growing up; mine – all the privileges of a life born as an American, and Ibrahim’s all the struggles of Africa. One night, when Ibrahim was with my wife – having driven her to a dinner with a friend – he approached her in the restaurant panicked with the keys to the vehicle in his shaking hands. “I need to go,” he said and my wife smiled gently (she is always so gentle) and said “I hope everything is OK?” as he was leaving.
Everything was not OK. Ibrahim’s son had caught malaria – that plague of Africa – and had died. Sometimes I look at my own little boy, and I still see the comparisons. As he learns to play violin, as he learns to ski and swim and talks on Skype with grandma and grandpa, normal things for a normal little boy, I think of Ibrahim’s son who was called away early from this world and I sorrow. Scars from Africa that will never heal – but that too is narcissistic for it’s not about me, of course its not. Because Ibrahim lost his son. I console myself that it was not about money – we had paid him the day before, and had never turned him down for a loan when he asked. I repeat “It was not my fault, it was just Africa” which is true: the ambulance had been out of gas, the hospital had delayed treatment until payment was made, the cash machines did not work. Normal things in a land which is hard and cold and unforgiving; but that does not make up for the fact that my boy is watching DinoTrux after dinner and Ibrahim carries a faded picture of his lost son in his worn-out leather wallet.
Who do you compare yourself to? Because for those of us who have lived in Africa, who have struggled with more human suffering than we care to recall, we compare ourselves to the Ibrahims in our lives. And we issue a silent prayer of guilty gratitude. Because we know that there, but by the grace of God, we too might have gone – and still might go; a bad decision, a bad election, greed by those who have never been to Africa and only look up for their own comparisons, gazes fixed steadfastly in wickedness into the privileged lives of those who fill their social media feeds as they plan their revenge. But revenge for what? Those who rage the most are themselves the privileged – bereft of gratitude certainly, ignorant of their bounty to be sure, but nevertheless at the apex of human existence. Would that they could stop, if only for a moment, and consider instead Ibrahim, and be grateful – for that is the emotion that probably has the greatest healing powers of all in these troubled times.
Great post, Joel, and hard to read about Ibrahim’s son. We can tell a lot about ourselves – and others – by learning for what we are truly thankful.