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The Trap of Indifference
The greatest evil in the world is not anger or hatred, but indifference.
When Susan and Nick decided to start a family, they were both working full-time jobs, but try as they might, their combined income simply "didn't go the whole distance." Savings were out of the question—after the bills were paid, there was never enough to put anything aside. On top of that, Nick's job carried no medical insurance, and Susan's no maternity leave. Still, they were determined to have a baby. So they did.
Not surprisingly the couple found little sympathy at work. Nick describes himself as "just a regular family man working hard," but says he was treated "like a welfare cheat." As for Susan, she was asked, "Couldn't you have planned a little further ahead?" No one was openly cruel, but no one was happy for them either, and as time went on, this indifference came to hurt more deeply than anything that might have been said.
When the baby came, the couple delighted in their new role as parents, but barely. There wasn't any time. For one thing, delivery room complications resulted in unexpected medical bills, and Susan had to get back to work right away. For another, it was almost impossible to find affordable day care on the couple's newly constrained budget. After a frantic two-week search, Nick found a place that had an opening for newborns, but when he went to view the place, he found a private residence owned by two elderly women, and some eighteen babies andtoddlers, each dirtier and more disconsolate than the rest, strapped into car seats and watching television. Susan hated the place as much as Nick did, but there was little choice. Drop the job, or enroll baby Jenny. They did the latter.
Susan and Nick's dilemma is not an unusual one; in fact, it is repeated in countless places and variations. But its familiarity makes it no less shameful or frustrating. When a young couple who wishes to start a family faces such obstacles in one of the most prosperous countries in the world — and one of the most prosperous decades in memory — something is seriously wrong. And I'm not talking about a lack of planning.
On the bright side, of course, Jenny is better off than many children: born to a mother who wants her, she also has a father and a roof over her head. But what kind of world awaits her as she grows?
Each day in America, some 22 children are murdered or killed; each night an estimated 100,000 children go to sleep in parks, under bridges, or in homeless shelters. Some 2,800 children see their parents divorce each day, while for a 1.5 million, the only way to see their fathers is to visit them in prison.
Globally, the statistics are even more unimaginable: almost 40,000 children starve to death daily, while millions more work under forced labor conditions, including the brothels of Asia's tourist-supported sex market. In armed conflicts from Central America to Africa, an estimated quarter of a million children are currently employed as soldiers, some of them as young as five years of age.
For Jenny, as for countess other children, the world is hardly a welcoming place. From the playground to the bedroom, the issues that will sooner or later confront them read like items from a police blotter: child abandonment and child abuse, sexual assault and self-mutilation, exposure to drugs and easy access to guns. What's a parent to do?
It's a good question. Most of us have our hands full just looking out for our own children without worrying about someone else's day care problems — let alone the nameless masses of Mozambique, Sao Paulo, Calcutta, or the Bronx. With only so many hours in the day, we have our own lives to live, and when the chips are down, it's clear who's going to get our attention first. Of course, that's precisely the point of my anecdote about Susan and Nick. Unable to fathom more than the most immediate needs, even for the best reasons, we try to cope by blocking out the rest. We end up caught in the trap of indifference.
As for statistics: the numbers are horrendous, but they're also mind-boggling, and even if we'd prefer not to admit it, they tend to overwhelm or bore rather than shock. Take, for example, the complete absence of any public outcry whatsoever when (on a 60 Minutes segment in 1998) a reporter asked U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright if she felt that UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq were "worth the price." After conceding that an estimated 750,000 children had died in the previous eight years as a direct result of those sanctions, she said, "We feel that this is a hard choice, but we think — we think the price is worth it." Albright, a former war refugee, is also a mother, and I can hardly believe that she is truly as cold-hearted as this statement makes her sound. Still, if such a sentiment were only an expression of government policy and not a reflection of popular opinion, I think the sanctions in question would have been lifted long ago. In other words, I'm not sure Albright's statement can be explained away as a merely political ploy.
Ironically, at the same time that Washington was justifying the continued starvation of Iraq, it was also announcing plans to welcome the new millennium by proclaiming 2000 the Year of the Child. Incredulous, I wrote to African-American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, a friend, and asked him what he thought about it.
I see nothing harmful in proclaiming a year of the child. Perhaps there is even something laudatory about it. But in truth such a proclamation, no matter how nobly-intentioned, will have little real impact on the wretched lives lived by billions of babies who fight to draw breath on this planet.
Diplomats and politicians answer to power interests, and they are instruments of such forces. Last time I checked, kids don't have a PAC [political action committee], nor do they command capital. They are smooth little symbols that are kissed at election time. But when the real business of politics shifts into gear, they are virtually ignored.
If they survive, today's children will inherit a world that their fathers and grandfathers have ravaged, where the seas are acidic cesspools that the whales have fled, where rain forests are Indian memories never to return, and where human greed has plundered Mother Earth's innards and turned human genes into factories for profit. They will inherit a diminished planet where fresh water is increasingly rare, and where fresh air is a commodity ...
We live in a world that fears and hates its young. How else can one explain the bequest of such a foul, polluted, and hollow inheritance? This generation, which came of age in the midst of a rising tide of human liberation movements, is now one of the most repressive in human history, as it consigns its young to more dungeons for longer periods than did their parents' generation. It bleeds resources from already crumbling urban and rural schools, and aids and abets an irrelevant education whose core message is obedience.
Knowledge is but another commodity that is available to the few that can afford it. For millions of poor children in a nation that has amassed more wealth than the ancient Roman Empire, schools are dreary and dilapidated — grim abattoirs of the mind.
Our children hunger for love. They have two-hundred-dollar sneakers, video games, computers. Some even have their own cars — the bright glittering detritus of two working parents. They have all of the latest toys, but no love.
Unloved, how can children love? Unloved, how can they do else than hate ...
On calendars, in newspapers, and on the lying lips of pimping politicians, The Year of the Child will be proclaimed loudly and proudly. But after the calendar turns, the newspapers are balled up and trashed, and the politicians cry crocodile tears as they "feel your pain," our children will still be the castaways of the ship of capital. They are drowning in a sea of lovelessness, and after 2000 they will continue to drown.
Naturally we cannot only blame the government. We bear a guilt too, we whose privileged middle-class lifestyles have, at least in part, created the ghettos and barrios where every card is stacked against the children of the poor; who remain silent in the face of policies that threaten the future of whole nations; who look the other way when the children of other races and classes are repressed, imprisoned, starved, or enslaved. As long as we remain knowingly aloof, we cannot claim innocence.
To be charitable, many people are not so indifferent to the plight of the world's needy children as ignorant of it. That was certainly the case with me, at least until May 1998, when my church in upstate New York sent me to Baghdad. There I saw suffering on a scale I never could have imagined.
A good-will gesture by a group of Europeans and Americans opposed to the UN sanctions on Iraq, our journey included stops at bomb shelters, hospitals, nurseries, and schools and brought us face to face with some of the hardest sights I have ever seen: hundreds of starving children dying before our eyes, while weeping mothers begged us to tell them why "we" were doing this to them? Though tempted to explain that we were there in protest of our country's policies toward them, I found myself in tears instead. Unable to speak, I tried to comfort them by listening.
Since then my wife and I (and others from our church) have returned to Baghdad twice, bringing food, medications, and supplies, and offering our services in hospitals where the wards have not been cleaned for years.
Though a drop in the bucket in terms of their effectiveness, these trips were vital experiences for me, not least because they drove home a truth none of us can be reminded of often enough: it is always children who suffer most for the sins of the world. And that is as true in a "developed" country as in an impoverished or war-torn one.
Clearly we cannot all fly to Iraq or move to the inner city. Even if we could, there would be little purpose in doing so. But neither can it be right to close out everything that lies beyond our door — and settle for a life of self-centered oblivion.
Thoreau wrote in his journal, "Only that day dawns to which we are awake." It is the same with many of life's riddles. Once we get out of our easy chairs and open the blinds, their elusive answers will dawn on us. We will discern priorities that pull us beyond our comfort zones and into problems we can actually do something about. And we will realize how many children there are who can be reached and saved.
But that will mean putting away our speeches about the Year of the Child and finding the child who needs us today. It will mean laying aside our analyses about the endangered state of childhood and concerning ourselves with children themselves. It will mean starting to live as if children really mattered to us.
In 1991, while we spent billions to "save" the people of Kuwait from Iraq, two million of our own neglected children-three times Kuwait's entire population — attempted suicide. Eight years later, in 1999, we tried to "rescue" the people of Kosovo from Serbia by bombing both to smithereens; meanwhile, during the very same period, thousands of American and Western European children died at the hands of their own violent parents and guardians.
If children mattered to us, we would recognize that they are the real victims we ought to be fighting for and mobilize on their behalf. We would turn our national budget upside down, with spending for children at the top, and guns and bombs at the bottom — if we left them there at all. New schools, not new prisons, would mushroom across the land, and politicians would win on the most creative platform for education, not the toughest approach to dealing with crime.
If children mattered, our cities would be putting dollars into affordable day care and after-school programs, not instituting curfews and hiring cops. And they certainly would not hire officers like the one I recently read of, who caught the main dealer of a teenage drug ring in the act. Asked whether one successful arrest would really do any good, he replied, "No." What would? Curling his fingers to form the shape of a gun, he cocked his hand and said, "If I could shoot them as I caught them."
Call it a bad joke. Whatever it is, it's not a rare attitude. In a culture where violence — including violence against children — has become the stuff of everyday life, compassion has gone cold and the only thing left is such callousness.
Or is it? Uncaring employers and gun-toting policemen aside, new children are born into our torn and twisted world every day, and each one brings (in the words of Indian poet Tagore) the "renewed message that God has not lost faith in mankind." It's a mystical thought, but it carries a challenge as well. If the Creator has not lost faith in our humanity, who are we to do so? The world may be in a sorry state, but that should not keep us from welcoming children — the messengers of its salvation. After all, if the cause of so much that is wrong is our own indifference, the path toward a solution cannot remain hidden for long. At least that's what Mumia Abu-Jamal thinks:
If the greatest evil in the world is not anger or hatred, but indifference, then the opposite also holds true: the greatest love is the attention we pay to each other, and especially to our children. We serve children best simply by noticing them — by paying attention to them ...
Posted July 4, 2000
This latest book by Arnold is superb. I would even say it's the best book I've ever read on child-raising. Two chapters are outstanding: 'In Praise of Black Sheep,' and 'The Power of a Hug.' If you have a child who's maladjusted, a wallflower, unpopular, the last one to be chosen for a ballgame - take heart. Arnold insists that just these children turn out to be the most creative, independent thinkers, the movers and shakers of the world. And I love the chapter on the hug.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2000
I found the 'book' extremely relevant. I found it to be a compelling, practical insight on the needs of children in our world. Mr. Arnold's love for children, and people in general is evident in his writing...I intend on reading Endangered again, and sharing it with friends and family as well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2000
If you are looking for a book that has a lot of direction for raising your child here it is. I read the manuscript in one sitting and I am finding myself going back to it again and again. I can not wait to see the finished bookWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 15, 2000
I was given a galley proof of this book by my oldest daughter, who found it very helpful and encouraging. What impressed her the most is that Arnold has a warm heart for the 'difficult' child, and writes that it is just these children who turn out to be the most creative, independent, and self-reliant. I recommend this book to all parents (and grandparents).Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 24, 2000
Arnold's approach is mainly from a father's perspective, but he is much more than an ordinary father, given his pastoral role. People need to hear such a powerful message.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2000
As a kindergarten teacher, this book has been a great help to me in understanding the true meaning and importance of 'reverence for the child'. In the busyness of teaching and trying to handle a lively group of children, this book has helped me with very practical tips to keep the heart of the child in mind--as this can sometimes get lost in all of the outer flurry of activities. It covers the 'whole' of a child's life leading to adulthood and I feel it is the hottest book on educating children that has ever been written!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 18, 2000
I am a single mother with my first child. I was looking for a good book on parenting. I feel very young and inexperienced, having been an only child myself. My mother brought me up on Dr. Spock and now I'm going to bring up my daughter on Johann Christoph Arnold. This book caught my eye because it is so true that children nowadays are growing up in a hostile world. My little girl is so trusting and vulnerable. Rev. Arnold is encouraging without being glib -- he sees all the dangers and gives really good advice.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 10, 2000
Perhaps I am jumping the gun to review this book before it is available to the public. But having read much of the manuscript I want people to know they have something exciting to look forward to! I am a youth counselor and father of 4 teenagers and have turned to the author (Johann Christoph Arnold, my pastor) a number of times for advice over the last years. His book will challenge many of the well-meaning but destructive norms of parenting that so many of us fall into. It also helps us grasp our children's place in a bigger picture, a world that is systematically destroying the childlike spirit. Focus on some of Arnold's insights while your kids are still young enough to benefit!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.