Saving Starfish is Insufficient and Necessary

I watched The Freedom Writers (2007) last night at Caritas’ Faith on Film event. It evoked powerful emotions in me; I found myself tearing at multiple points. But amidst all the sentimentality, the emotion that struck me the most was resentment.

For a good first half or even two-thirds of the film, I felt bitter. The protagonist-stereotypical-idealist-teacher makes it seems so easy, I thought to myself. Just some passion, dogged determination, and a few unconventional teaching methods—as if that is all it takes to change lives. Whereas I remembered how dreariness and disappointments had eroded my own idealism after teaching Yi Kai for five years and catechism for three years. That made me realise that I was resentful because Erin Gruwell’s success made me seem like a failure. (Let’s save the argument on the definition of failure for another day.)

But ego aside, the past two years have shown me also that saving starfish, while important, is insufficient. Going to Paitan in 2016 taught me that one-trip wonders pale in comparison to sustained efforts and committed relationships. (This actually coheres with the moral of the story in The Freedom Writers, given that the film frames its key narrative tension as Gruwell’s relationship with her students.)

My 2017 internship in Myanmar taught me about how huge and systemic an issue like poverty is. The Jesuits can build shelters in the slums, but it is economic policy that will that will replace hovels with houses. Even in a place like Nazareth Bush School, it is increasingly vital to think about sustainability and funding. As for the Rohingya, the whole world needs to get its act together.

Consider also, for example, a humanitarian crisis like Yemen. Sure, rich countries can send aid, NGOs and journalists can write damning reports, missionaries can work on the ground. But for the suffering to truly end, the war has to stop, and for that, politics and diplomacy (between players who are not even Yemeni, as per this New Yorker article) are far more efficacious tools than compassion.

And yet, even as I write this, that last statement triggers alarm bells. As Christians, efficacy is a problematic measure. When we quantify suffering and measure the amount we alleviate versus the effort we put in, we risk becoming humanistic, or worse, utilitarian. Without compassion, solving the problem of pain (as if we could really solve it by ourselves anyway) becomes just another brain-teaser, another ambitious goal, another ego-stroking pursuit.

For Christians, we love the poor because Christ loved the poor. Christ was with the poor, for the poor, and in the poor. It was on the Cross, stripped off possessions and personhood, that Christ suffered as and with the poor. That is why compassion—derived from the Latin word compati which translates literally to ‘suffer with’—is critical. When we are compassionate, it is Christ in us that reaches out to the Christ in the other.

And (note to self) the other is always an individual, someone with a name and a story, dreams and hopes, loves and losses.

Realising at the end that the film was based on a true story strummed a heartsring. It made me reflect and remember that, while I see meaning in my work now, without more, I would eventually lose touch with the man on the street.

So I have decided to re-explore volunteer work—maybe some kind of tuition or mentoring commitment with Club Rainbow or Boys’ Town. Between my work portfolio ramping up, wanting to learn French, and my new responsibilities as a Shepherd, I don’t know where the time is going to come from. But I still have to try.

Because regardless of what level we are building God’s Kingdom at, it is only by engaging directly with sheep that shepherds will smell like them. It is only by saving starfish that we can look back and still see the footprints in the sand.

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About Mel

I dreamt I was a whale. https://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/about-mel/