(all photos in this post courtesy of Dave Adair- check out his site at http://www.blog.daveadair.com/ to see more pics and her his impressions of Anandwan)
“Why I took up leprosy work: not to help anyone, but to overcome that fear in my life. That is worked out good for others was a by-product. But the fact is I did it to overcome fear.” Baba Amte, founder of Anandwan
Sometimes playing with the blind and deaf children seems like the easiest thing in the world. All I have to do is sit down, and within moments I’m surrounded by a sea of eager young faces all wanting to show or teach me something. When I give them the slightest attention with hand gestures or facial expressions, they become overjoyed.
In these moments, I’m reminded how much difference simple care and presence can be. Just showing up is enough to brighten their day.
The other day, we invented a game by sticking a couple pieces of blank paper in the nooks of a tree trunk. We congratulated them with a thumbs-up every time they recovered this absolutely useless prize. This entertained and excited them for an entire hour. Skipping rope, playing cricket with a stick, or passing a water balloon around a circle all have the same effect. Watching their unbridled enthusiasm, I’ve come to feel a paternal fondness for many of them, and learned what it is to love a child.
But sometimes, their sheer quantity overwhelms me. Earlier this week, we entered a room filled with over 60 children, planning to spend our time helping them draw their names in bubble letters to decorate with glitter or sticky paper. As soon as we pulled out the materials from the bag, however, dozens of tiny hands grabbed whatever they could reach. Before I could even sit down, they were already clamoring for my attention with a nearly violent insistence.
I felt like I had just sat down to email after a two-week hiatus: I didn’t know where to start, because everything seemed important and demanded my attention at once. Not more than ten seconds would go by without a desperate grunt or squeal demanding a pair of scissors, a colored pencil, or my approval of their work. I tended as best I could to their various demands, but quickly realized that in trying to help all of them, I was actually helping none of them. I felt inept, sat there for a few minutes with a blank stare on my face, and just wanted to walk out.
Then, the adorable little girl in front of me managed snapped me out of my reverie.
I just couldn’t ignore her smile, so I decided that if I were going to help her, it would have to be only her and no one else. I shut out all the background noise, ignored the bedlam, and helped her to cut out the stickers she wanted to attach to her paper. At one point, a boy I had ignored for several minutes put his drawing an inch in front of my eyes, but I brushed him off as I would a persistent mosquito. Twenty minutes later, the little girl and I had finished our masterpiece, I gave her a smiling thumbs-up, and went outside for some respite from the heavy, fart-laden air (I think their deafness contributes to their flatulence).
It was then that I suddenly remembered that the little girl hadn’t written her name in block letters, as we had suggested, but had the word LOVE on her paper (Giulia’s doing, I later found out). I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and felt some kind of benevolent choreography at work in my life that always reminds me of what I need to know.
Later that day, I read the Baba Amte quote at the top, and realized that overcoming fear was also part of my motivation to come here to Anandwan. It’s easy to see how I could be afraid of the wounds in the morning, but fear with the children was as present, though less visible. This situation showed me that I had nearly let the fear of not being able to help everyone turn into an excuse to help no one. To overcome this fear, in the crushing mass of demands on my attention, all I needed to do was focus on love (literally and metaphorically).
I’ve also observed the fears that I won’t do my task “correctly”, that I’m not the right person or I don’t have the right skills, that what I do won’t last or have tangible results, that other people will think of a certain way of me. I’m also faced with the fear that the joy I may have provided the children by my somewhat fatherly presence may cause them pain because it can’t last (when one of them asked me when we were leaving, he took out a pen and wrote “sad” and “cry” on my paper).
But fear, like suffering, is often transformed with simple awareness. Simply bearing witness to reality as it is, without piling on addition layers of fear of fear, or suffering because of our suffering, changes our relation to it, and is the only way to open the way to reaching out in a compassionate way. This is not a superhuman or technically difficulty act, but one whose power lies in its simplicity. Although we can’t take the whole world on our shoulders, we needn’t let that stop us from whittling it down and just starting somewhere. The size of what is done matters not nearly as much as the amount of heart it’s done with. And as I learned with the little girl, sometimes the most powerful form of “doing” can be simple being with someone who needs our attention, if we stay focused on love. As Mother Theresa said, “We cannot hope to do great things; we can only hope to do small things with great love.”
To be open to the omnipresent pain, while knowing that whatever you do to ease it won’t ever be enough, is a difficult thing to feel. But I find it’s better to feel that than to put up barriers to anesthetize me from it.
One final note: The experiences I’ve chosen to relate on this blog could be misleading regarding the “real” nature of Anandwan. I’ve focused on certain examples where I’ve received powerful teachings, but it’s only a fraction of the story. Sure, it’s a place where love does indeed shine freely in many ways. But it is also a place of unspeakable hardship. I’ve tried my best to capture it, but words simply do not do it justice. Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to grasp is that the people who live in Anandwan are often callous, rude, and hateful toward their fellow residents. While some of them have a genuine interest in helping one another, it’s also common to hear stories of women being left for hours on the floor (in one case, in a pool of her own urine) while her roommates looked indifferently on. Additionally, it’s important to mention that although leprosy knows no caste, leprosy patients sure do. Just like in the outside world, many let caste serve as a basis for discrimination (ironic, I know, that people rejected by society would still find ways to reject one another). I mention this because I do not want to create a romanticized image of this place. I’ve attempted to “understand” it in my own way, but I’m fully aware that there is far more that I will never understood no matter how long I stay. I’m leaving this place on Monday evenly divided between feeling great inspiration and mystification at what human beings are capable of.
Many blessings for 2012!