Arriving in one of the poorest countries in the world is, to say the least, shocking. I could not imagine how anyone could possibly live on less than one dollar a day and survive, and I had certainly abandoned any idea of them enjoying a decent quality of life.
Amongst the colorful chaos of the brightly lit streets in Dhaka, Bangladesh, traffic moves left, then right, then left again, in a cataclysmic array of madness. The legless beg. The children play, and the seven year olds walk to work. My senses bombarded by the onslaught and novelty of a culture so unique to my own. Yet, amidst this chaos, this apparent display of destitution, there seemed to exist a subtle, all pervading peace, the kind of peace one finds when one is not always struggling to be better than, to become more.
Visiting the children's ward at Cholera Court, I can assure you, is not for the faint-hearted. The profound emotions of loss and death and hope one feels entering such a place is overwhelming. These children live without the convenience and comfort of the world we know, a world where nothing is taken for granted, and every human encounter, human touch and human smile is a blessing. They appear to savor and live every moment for what it is, and have a reverence for life and for basic human qualities that most of us simply take for granted. Their great brown eyes piercing straight through you, uncovering every guise and veil ever created as a means to hide from the world. I felt in these children an intense passion. In spite of their suffering, they shone with the beauty of resilience.
One hour from cholera court, we arrive at Sreepur Village, an orphanage started in 1988 by air stewardess, Pat Kerr. Quickly surrounded by girls eager for recognition, feeling the novelty of a blond westerner holding their hand. I was ushered into a brushed clay building where children slept each night on 15ft long communal beds. As I walked around the L shape building the rooms on the left towards the exit housed the youngest children. Clean and fed, the babies were well taken care of. Yet they lay there in their cots with limited human interaction. I heard the voice of a friend in my head echoing the importance of developing medical skills if you wanted to be of use in a third world country.
It was true that these children needed health care, food, shelter and water but the most profound unseen element of poverty was the lack of human interaction and touch. This one essential ingredient, the human relationship --one of the most basic needs of all humanity -- seemed to be missing. My simple act of holding these children brought an elated smile to their faces. The slightest touch, my most tender glance moved them deeply. It was as if the aura of human contact through a shared basic existence was so present that the children avail themselves of direct contact whenever it is present. The babies seem to lie in a deeply connected meditative state ready to burst into responsive smiles with the experience of a gentle touch.
In contrast, I then return to New York and walk down 57th street, the same walk I had made many times over. I saw the designer dresses in Bergdorf and felt the frenetic pace of the people passing by. Yet in the air, there was an emptiness, a void. People seemed to have everything and somehow be touched by nothing. And intermittently the faces that flashed in my mind were those of the children, who had nothing but were touched by everything.
Sir Laurens van der Post, the famed author, storyteller and prisoner of war, a messenger in search of meaning who lived and taught his belief, once said "Every human being has a two thousand year old man within himself and if he loses contact with that man he loses contact with his real roots. So the question of why modern man is in search of himself has a lot to do with this naked little bushman who owned nothing. That the difference between him and us was that ' he is ' and that 'we have.' We no longer are. We've exchanged having for being.
As we consider how we educate children in this increasingly interconnected world, why don't we start by basing our educational philosophies on the notion that the human relationship, the bonding and love which is shared in such a paradigm are just as important as any facts the teacher can impart to the child. Thereby, accomplishment can be measured by a sense of self and value for others not simply by what grades you receive. Schooling, housing, food and sanitation are all important but each human being needs the sustenance of the heart, a deep sense of emotional well being and strengthening of imagination to find meaning in one's life. These qualities of spiritual enrichment are necessary to excel in the world of tomorrow, to dream beyond the norm and strive to fulfill a sustainable future.
We can't always anticipate where our next gift to break open -- beyond definition, will come from. The children I encountered during those ten days spent in Dhaka, working with the National Science Foundation on the Sari Filtration Project, not only reframed my notions of poverty forever -- they also taught me about the unyielding power of the human spirit and what unites us all as human beings.
It is possible to be rich long before we have money.
In life, some experiences go unnoticed, some cause us to pause, and then there are those that are so profound they change the very fabric of our being. The real question is what do we do with these experiences, and how do we honor the calling they awaken in us.