Life without a safety net

12 10 2009

I’ve said a couple times that my words and pictures don’t really do this place or this experience justice. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even as I see these scenes unfold in front of me, the reality of life here never fully sinks in.

The dust that cakes my feet each night attests to the fact that I walk the same streets as the people who call this place home. I see the hardship; I witness the struggle. It’s all around me. But there is still a disconnect – a seemingly insurmountable divide in my mind that won’t let me fully accept that this is reality. No matter how much I see I can’t fully understand what it’s like to fight so hard for so little each and every day.

Sunday night, from the comfort of our “home”, Stephanie and I had a conversation that made it come alive for me as much as anything else has so far. Steph’s family was celebrating Thanksgiving (she’s Canadian), and thoughts of home left her missing the people she loves.

As we talked about it, it finally clicked. We get to go home. We get to go back to our families and friends. And in the tiny ache that Steph felt as she longed for home, I was able to understand a little bit more.

It hurts. It hurts when we’re separated from the people we love. When they are gone – or even just far away. It’s a lonely feeling. It’s sinking. Painful. Raw.

I started to think about the day my dad died. I started to remember that, buried under the agonizing grief, tucked behind all the gut-wrenching pain – there was fear. I was afraid. I was terrified. It was like I was walking a tightrope and looked down just in time to realize that half my safety net had fallen away. There was slack. It was loose. There were no longer any guarantees if I fell.

We need people. We need community. We need a support system that promises to love, accept, and welcome us no matter what. For most of us, that starts with our parents. Then, throughout our lives, we build and weave and grow a web of individuals with whom we choose to live our lives. People we know will catch us when – not if – we fall.

It took me a long time to realize that my safety net could be repaired. And while there will always be a hole, my sense of security has been restored. And it’s that security that helps ease the pain and the fear.

But it’s different here. There are over 1.2 million orphans in Zambia. And, for them, no such security exists. They often get absorbed into extended families that don’t have the time or the resources for them. Many are seen as burdens. Many are abandoned and abused. They are surrounded by people, but they are still all alone. These are little kids – little kids – who look to the future and see no definable end to the loneliness.

It hurts; it’s raw.

And it’s no different for the adults. Death is a daily truth here. It’s lonely. It’s scary. It’s full of indescribable pain. And it’s the only reality these people know. The feeling is tangible as you walk down the street – you can sense it, you can see it in people’s eyes. There are no guarantees. They are living life without a safety net.

I don’t want to sound hopeless – because that’s not the case, either. There is joy and hope all around us here, which makes it that much harder to describe. But for the first time I think I have the tiniest understanding of something that has been eluding me. The gap is a little smaller, and my grasp is a little wider. And, I am that much more thankful for this opportunity to live and learn and grow – and, hopefully, to be a selfless servant along the way.




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