Archive for April, 2007

Why contrast is helpful

I’m colorblind.

I found out when I was in third grade in Mrs. Witek’s class when we were looking at some of the pictures in our workbook and I commented on the brown grass. One of my friends said, “That’s not brown! That’s green, Andy!”

I cried.

Shortly afterwards, I got glasses and I took one very visible step further along the path to geekdom. For any third-grade boy where I grew up glasses were a symbol of “emerging geek” and impeded the progress of an eight-year-old’s social standing and dominance of the diamond or gridiron at recess.

My colorblindness was confirmed later when I was a high school senior applying for an Air Force ROTC scholarship. I took one of those color blindness tests where there are several dots that combine to form a alpha-numeric character. The retired lieutenant opened up the first page and asked what number I saw.

“There’s a number?” I replied.

After a couple more pages, the initial assumption was made pretty clear – putting me in the cockpit of a fighter plane would be a bad idea. A very bad idea. The United States did not achieve world superpower status by employing pilots who couldn’t tell the difference between communist red and jihad green. So I chose to study things where color didn’t matter – like dirt, spreadsheets, steel, and how many tons a concrete beam can hold until it busts. Cool stuff like that.
But there are a couple advantages of being colorblind – my visual receptors that pick up darkness and brightness, contrast, have become more sensitive and allow for me to see things that not everyone sees at first glance. I see better in the dark. And because most folks are so dependent upon their color vision, in rare instances I actually see things that others can’t.

(It still is a lousy trade off. I just live this life with a closer understanding that what I see now is, as the Apostle Paul put it, “but a poor reflection as in a mirror.” Heaven will definitely be far superior to technicolor.)

This last week, I got to see contrast that most others don’t. I lived in a village just outside of Cairo, Egypt called Mokattam (pronounced Mo-ah-tam in Egyptian Arabic) where the economic engine of the community is built on garbage. Literally – this is a village of garbage collectors. Over 3,000 tons of garbage enter the community each day, and are manually sorted by the people of the village. The result is that over 65% of the waste is recycled – which is nearly triple the efficency of the United States. Often the waste is processed and sent back as raw material to be reused to produce other products. It sounds amazing in theory.

Until you actually go there. The smell as you enter the area is pungent – and that is putting it kindly. I went in spring – when it is still cool. The blistering hot summer of Egypt only increases the strength of the stench. I was walking around with my colleague and she gagged twice. She still feels sick days later.

There were some things I saw that made me sick in my head. In a meeting among some folks trying to make a difference by creating a recycling center for boys, one of their leaders makes his living by recycling medical waste.

Let me say that again: he makes his living by sorting medical waste. By hand.

And he doesn’t have hot water in his home to wash his hands afterwards – he has to go to a neighbor. For $50 US, a friend of mine (ironically, who works in the medical waste industry) provided the resources to have hot water to wash his hands. He only asked for the opportunity to share the situation with those in leadership in his company to end such practices.

Later I was walking with a friend in Mexico City who has spent significant time in Cairo working among Sudanese refugees. She recounted a story where she witnessed a pedestrian get run over by a car and die in Cairo. She was horrified – unbelievably shocked. Shocked at the lack of response of the pedestrians, and letting the man die on the street before getting him to a hospital. As she told the story to one of the Sudanese persons she worked with, the Sudanese person said, “Yes, sometimes that happens.”

Sometimes that happens!? Like a certain bodily function?

This is the reality of life for the half of the world that live on less than $2/day. Yet, I can’t say I’ve been more welcomed by any group of people in my life. I was welcomed in peoples homes, laughed heartily with what little Arabic and English could be said, and realized how the gift of hospitality can transcend language.

Contrast helps me understand why affluence satisfies so little and provides a false veneer for community, yet poverty brings the necessity of community closer to reality. More contrast to come and I begin a deeper journey in understanding why the poor are blessed.


April 2007
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