Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Your Face Doesn't Show That You Have Suffered"

I was out at dinner a few nights ago when I found out that Lawrence Fishburne is directing a movie based on one of my favorite books, the Alchemist.

I wanted to write a post describing how this book was a good place to begin the telling of my story. But for whatever reason, I hesitated.

So when Brother Lightness told me just last night that he had finally read the book, I figured now was as good a time as any to speak on it.

Some would say the book isn't for everyone. I disagree, which is not to say that I think the book is for everyone, but instead to say it is a book that is best discovered of one's own accord.

I figured, however, that it might be a good place to start because in many ways, it's where I became acutely aware of my own journey.

I was seventeen when I first read the Alchemist. I won't credit the book for the transformation itself, but it was most certainly one of many catalysts that offset my paradigm shift.

For the first time, I started to think of life as a narrative complete with occasional tests and miracles.

From that point on, I understood that part of enjoying life was recognizing how well things come together. I was beginning to see the bigger picture.

My story begins a long time ago. But since this is Postgraduate Musings, it's best that I start my story on the day I graduated from college and drove back home to New York City from Williamstown.

That trip was depressing for a number of reasons. First, it was unbearably hot. Second, the fact that college was over finally began to sink in as the scenery changed on the Taconic. Third, albeit temporarily, I was heading to the South Bronx.

At some point during this trip, my mother and I began speaking about the Congo-a subject that often lifts my spirits. I spoke of my desire to go and like any good mother she assuaged my joy just enough to make me think realistically, but not enough to make me altogether lose the urge to visit the African continent.

She spoke of how the scarcity of electricity in some places would be shocking to me. She met every romantic notion I had with words of caution about what was reality. And for the most part I listened and resolved to myself that my trip would be like nothing I had ever experienced before.

At one point, I said something to the extent of, "well, I was born to two African parents so I should be able to blend right in." She responded saying, "you'll stick out like a sore thumb," which was funny given my mother isn't one to use American idioms.

Suprised, I asked her why I would not be able to fit in if I were to keep to myself and dress like everyone else. After thinking for a few seconds, she replied, "your face doesn't show that you have suffered. The people in my country have suffered a great deal and it shows in their faces."

Truth be told, I was a little offended at first. I've suffered, I thought to myself.
She was right, though. What I had suffered was not comparable to the suffering of the people of her country. I've always had the luxury of hope and of not knowing true fear.

So at the core of my narrative is this notion that no one should suffer. And many months ago I began to keep my eyes open to opportunities where I can of service to this dream and its realization.


Brother Spotless said...

Clearly, individuals like us don't have a pot to piss in under the "suffer" argument, but what about a child whose existence can be likened to a child in "The Wire"? Can s/he argue a level of "suffer" equal to a Congolese child?

Do you find value in determining who suffers more?

Brother Smartness said...

Didn't see there was a response to this.

Neither my mom nor I would try to make that comparison.

The point was that I had been spared that suffering- a kind of suffering that exists here in the inner city as well as abroad in the Congo.

I know I've seen a few kids in the inner city that have been through real unfortunate circumstances and it switches up their whole countenance.

There is no value in determing who suffers more, only purpose.

The question becomes, what do you this paucity of suffering?

And the answer, I believe, is to fight for more people to be able to live a life like the one you've been blessed to have.

Brother Spotless said...


The question often pops up in my head as the more serious sister-thought to the generally comical intuition I have that "thugs" here wouldn't last a weekend in the Congo.

The comparison of the plight of inner city youths and (later) adults to that of the Congolese citizenry can boil down to whether "suffer" is relative to the surrounding circumstances (and therefore can equate) or actually can be ranked. I don't have the answer to this, but the question I would pose to your mom is: "Do you see the same look in the eyes of the most downtrodden youth here as you saw in the Congo?"

Anonymous said...

I suggest reading, There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz a Wall Street Reporter who follows two young brothers growing up in the projects of Chicago. This story quickly shows that there is unjust suffering everywhere. I can almost guarantee that that look in the eyes of the most downtrodden youth here and in the Congo is the same. It is a look of a youth erased. It is the eyes of one who is old and worn in the face of a child.

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