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Friday, March 18, 2011

Japan and Overseas: Suffering as Common Denominator

Like everybody else, we are riveted by what is happening in Japan. It’s too much to imagine: the shock of losing so many lives—whole communities—to successive disasters and the specter of meltdown at the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant heightening the stress of recovery to what must be an unbearable level.

Our office in Japan, always busy with devoted volunteers, has been besieged by calls for advice and assistance. We are doing our best to be a part of a compassionate and coordinative network in and outside of the country. These activities take place on top of full time work on behalf of the poorest families in the world.

Our mandate is to assist the poorest of the poor. You could make the argument that the type of chronic poverty we are tackling with families in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, is an ongoing disaster. It’s one that unfolds so constantly that it fails to draw much, if any, attention to itself. We are charged to keep paying attention to—responding to—a disaster that doesn’t occupy much space in the public consciousness.

It’s totally inappropriate to compare the experience of suffering based on context. The fact that Japan has the third largest economy in the world makes not one iota of difference to the people of Sendai, many of whom lost friends and family members. Whether you lost a child in Ethiopia because you don’t have clean water to drink or because a tsunami swept her away, you are in exquisite pain.

So we don’t say that the Japanese people are somehow less deserving of compassion because their economy is wealthier and their infrastructure stronger to withstand these disastrous events. What we say is that suffering is universal, and where it occurs, we must extend compassion.

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