“Where I lived, and what I lived for” is the title Henry David Thoreau gave the second chapter of his now famous Walden. He writes of a desire for humans to “reawaken ourselves and keep ourselves awake…” for “[t]o be awake is to be alive.” (p.105) It may seem like a strange introduction to a reflection on why I chose to make this trip to Haiti but the more I think about it the more I realize that my desire to travel to Haiti is very similar to Thoreau’s desire to cultivate a life he felt was worth living. Let me explain. For a long time I have struggled with the disparity between my emotional response to the suffering of others and my actions. I live quite comfortably in an urban environment and want for nothing. I listen to NPR daily and hear stories of tragedy, loss, and upheaval from around the world and in my own country. I feel for my fellow beings—but I do not act.
It would be naïve (and somewhat arrogant) to think that traveling to Haiti for a week would somehow make a sizable difference in the lives of the Haitian people we will meet. The Haitian people have endured so much not only since the earthquake in January 2010 but in a reality where poverty and malnutrition are the norm rather than the exception. This reality is unknown to me. And yet, if I participate in a global socio-economic system that exploits those who are the most vulnerable to changes in climate, political instability, and violence I feel that I have a responsibility to know, to understand what impact the lifestyle to which I am accustomed is having on those whom I have never met. I have a responsibility to be awakened.
I am easily overwhelmed when I try to parse out what a socially responsible life looks like. To change one aspect of my patterns of consumption or daily life implicates another. I do not expect this trip to Haiti to make these decisions any clearer. I do hope, however, that this trip will instigate me to some kind of action, a prodding that will also cause me to ponder further why seeing someone else’s suffering is necessary before I am moved toward action to alleviate it. Much like Thoreau whose first chapter is to take stock of where he is and how he got there, I need to see and assess the globalizing world in which I live but do not yet know in order to find why I live there.