Limits of Imagination

A few days ago I began my morning as I usually do—yes, on my laptop, scrolling through the mostly-nonsense and occasionally interesting facebook postings of the past twenty-four…okay, maybe twelve…hours. Someone I barely know went to a wonderful concert; it’s a friend’s birthday and do I want to send him greetings; somewhere in western Canada it’s already snowing.

I paused, as I often do, to watch someone ice a cake or maybe that day it was someone sculpting an exact replica of the statue of liberty out of gumdrops. What an utterly foolish way to spend my time.

And then, a heart-stopping photo of a starving child in Yemen. Legs and arms the proverbial toothpicks, bulging belly—the counter-intuitive sign of severe malnutrition—eyes far too large for the gaunt face, more that of an old man than a toddler, curly hair the reddish tinge of the starving.

I’ve never seen an actual starving child. Starvation in my world means skipping lunch.

I’ve seen these photos before of course—too often—in newspapers and television before the wonders of the internet delivered every heart-wrenching human condition to my laptop, alongside memes encouraging me to be grateful for every day (which I am) and to click if I love my daughter (which I do, but I don’t click. I think she understands because she doesn’t click the ones about mothers, either.)

I couldn’t help lingering there, imagining holding a child without the softness of a child’s body, imagining the agony of being unable to provide even the barest essentials to a baby whose life depended on me, whose life emerged from me. Trying to imagine, of course, because I can’t pretend to know. My children, grandchildren, all the children in my life have lived in a time and place of plenty, as have I and virtually everyone I know in my own generation. We sometimes say that we’ve been the most fortunate generation ever, and within the context of North America and Europe, that’s probably true. Clearly not everywhere.

Once years ago, when my youngest child was less than a year old, I was with a group of women which included a young mother holding a child of the same age. Her baby was scrawny, seemed underdeveloped to me, and was drinking Tang from a bottle. I don’t know what became of that mother and child, but I do remember coming home to my own plump, breast-fed son and feeling a surge of protectiveness. Let no harm come to this child. What every mother must feel, even as fleshless bones press against an empty breast.

Eventually, I scrolled on. But two days later, that image won’t go away.

Perhaps it would have faded sooner if the next post hadn’t come from one of those people who seem to think the world is interested in looking at their dinner. And there it was. An obscenely huge hamburger surrounded by a side order of fries and gravy, a surplus of calories that starving mother and child may never have seen.

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