Friday, August 8, 2008

Earn this

I have a friend who, when Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, remarked that all Americans should be required to watch it. One of the best portrayals of history and something that he felt should help define the bandied-about notions of patriotism and responsibility.

This week I watched a wrenching documentary about homeless children in Bucharest, called Children Underground. It was one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.

The documentary follows five kids between the ages of 8 and 16, who live in an underground subway platform in Bucharest, and who spend their days huffing paint, fighting, begging, and protecting each other. As alarming as it is to see a grizzled homeless man so drunk he can't even form the words to beg for more liquor, it is more shocking (to me) to see a child in the same state.

I know that the badness of the world can become trite when we try to look at it all at once. I've written about it before, and there are tragedies happening every hour, every day, in every city on earth. Bad things happen but somehow there is a blurring when we try to comprehend the jump between a single child drooling out her life on a piece of urine-stained cardboard, and a thousands of children lost to warfare and sickness in the Sudan. Tens of thousands.

I write for children. I imagine ten-year-olds and their older and younger brothers and sisters drawn into a story in the same way that I was when I was young. But there are children all over the world in shattering conditions doing terrible things, with terrible things being done to them.

Who writes stories for them?

Who writes their stories?

How do we, as writers for children and as human beings, address the fact that through no achievement of our own we were born into this society and not that one? This time and not that one? Because I sure had nothing to do with the unimaginable luck of being born in America in the early 70s. Especially when you consider the alternatives.

At the end of Saving Private Ryan, the dying main character looks into Ryan's eyes. They had been sent to rescue him, and did so at at terrible cost in lives. But Ryan survives, and Tom Hanks' character says to him: "Earn this."

How can we compensate or apologize or be absolved or be forgiven for our hapless luck?

I think we have to earn it.

Children Underground is at Amazon, Netflix, and other places. Watch it.


Laini Taylor said...

Whoa. You know, not 30 seconds into Saving Private Ryan, I was bawling -- the intro with the old man's family taking him to the memorial cemetary in Normandy. And "Earn this" -- that is so powerful. What a weight. And we are so, so lucky to be where we are. I haven't done much in my life to earn what I have, but I recently became a Children International sponsor, to a young girl in Calcutta -- for less than many people spend at Starbucks in a month you can pay for a child's school and health programs and a variety of other programs. It's a small thing, to help a single child, but if more people would do it. . . it would be a big thing.

I don't know if I could watch that documentary. It sounds very terrible.

S R Wood said...

Laini -- You're right: maybe all we can do is what we can. It sounds a little cliched to put it like that but I think even small kindnesses are valuable. I guess if there were shortcuts to not feeling guilty then it would be sort of a cheat. There's no shortage of worthwhile charities.