Friday, October 26, 2007

There but for the grace of God...

We tried to go see the Titanic exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science last weekend. It didn't quite work out. I checked online and they had plenty of spaces left for several shows in the afternoon, but by the time we got there it was all sold out.

No biggie. We saw the dinosaurs and browsed the planetarium (they had some cool stuff, including a very Total Recall recreation of the surface of Mars and a table with moving rings that simulated orbits) saw the mummies (my favorite) and marveled at the dioramas in the Wildlife Exhibits.

One of the wildlife rooms was also the waiting area for the next Titanic exhibition, and they had devoted a wall to the impact the Titanic (and other ships of that sort) had on the Denver area. Between the mines, the railroads and the open west, thousands of immigrants had reason to buy passage across the Atlantic and come here to make a new life for themselves. The museum had a picture of a family (or two) standing in front of a couple tents pitched in the snow on a mountain slope, hard-faced men and plain-faced women dressed in dark, drab clothes. One woman had a baby in her arms wrapped up in a blanket and a younger child at her feet.

I found the photo online and this explanation by historian Eric Margolis:

In an interview with Emma Zanetell, an eighty-nine-year-old woman who lived at Forbes, I learned a different meaning from this photograph. "That's my tent," she exclaimed, "I'm there sick in bed." The story emerged that, a day or two before the picture was made, she had given birth to twins who died. Her husband and relatives had gone to Trinidad to bury the babies, leaving the tent colony undefended. While they were gone, the militia tore down the tents and burned them. Two soldiers came into Emma's tent; one told her to get up so they could set fire to her tent. Too sick to move, she overheard the other soldier threaten to kill his companion if he harmed her.

I stared at that picture for a good five minutes, wondering to myself how -- HOW -- these people made life work in that kind of situation. I moved to Denver in May and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Everything was in boxes. I knew no one. I had to look up grocery stores on the internet and map my way around. I got lost every time I tried to go anywhere. My son was a miserable, emotional mess, missing his friends and needing my attention every second. I had a house wrecked with packing paper and cardboard, nothing in its right place and no respite from caring for my two kids (new to me, as I'd always lived near family.)

Compared to the settlers in 1890, my move was a breeze.

The poster went on to talk about the labor strikes and the ease with which mine bosses found scabs to work for minimum pay in hazardous conditions. The US sent soldiers to clear out strikers on several occasions, and sometimes wives and children got caught in the crossfire.

It makes me marvel at the strength and resilience of the human condition. These people left their homeland for opportunity, spent all they had crossing the ocean and then begged or borrowed their way out west only to be used like slaves and discarded like cattle.

I can imagine my reaction in that situation. Bitter, violent complaining at all hours of the day. Whining, fussing, pouting, sulking. Lying in bed while the kids cry and climb all over me. Cursing God. Crying.

Not them. No time for that. They were too buy fighting to stay alive, improve their working conditions, educate their children and ensure that everyone in America had access to real freedoms and opportunities. They scrimped and suffered and soldiered on. And they won. They built our country.

It brings home to me, yet again, the spoiled, self-centered nature of my existence. I can hardly even imagine how I'd survive that sort of life, though I pray that with God's grace and the motivation of necessity, I could do it. I'd probably still do a lot of complaining, though. I really don't like the cold.

I wonder if would be courageous in fighting for my husband's right to an 8-hour day, or if I'd keep my head down because work meant food and we didn't dare risk what little we had. What if fighting meant his life, or my life, or the lives of our children? Would I be generous with our meager possessions? If a friend's husband died in the mines, would I invite her into my home and share everything I had, or would I think to myself: I just don't have enough right now. I can't help her.

My blessings are not just monetary or material. Nor have the freedoms we enjoy in this country always been a part of our society. Even now, much of the manual labor done in America is done by people with no rights, little pay, no medical care and no job security.

Would I be courageous if, instead of this free, prosperous country, I lived in Afghanistan? There are women there whose lives are so miserable that they'd rather set themselves on fire. Or in Indonesia, where Christians are persecuted and political prisoners routinely disappear? Or Pakistan, or Liberia, or anywhere else that women are only considered more valuable than sheep because sheep can't bear sons to carry on the family name? Or if, instead of shopping at Wal-Mart and watching my children play with Disney toys, we lived in China where they were actually making them in unsafe conditions?

It makes me very, very aware of how lucky I am. But in all honesty, it also scares me. Because the dichotomy between the torment and misery that exists in this world and my joy-filled life is as great as the chasm between heaven and hell. And I wonder...if God has said "To those whom more is given, more will be expected" (Luke 12: 48) what does He expect of me in light of all my blessings?

Picture credit

1 comment:

Jennifer F. said...

And I wonder...if God has said "To those whom more is given, more will be expected" (Luke 12: 48) what does He expect of me in light of all my blessings?

I love these reflections. Such great points. I think about this stuff as well. I am such an unbelievable whiner given the luxury of my life. It's something I'm really working on. Thank you for sharing this!