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  • Jason Townsell

When human suffering becomes personal


I have been visiting the continent of Africa since 2009, but it wasn't until 2017 that the burden of addressing the unsafe drinking water epidemic on the continent became one I carried. Why? I have spent a fair amount of time pondering this and just recently figured it out. The suffering finally became personal. Watching people I deeply cared about endure and navigate a world where sustainable access to clean water was not a reality made it that way.

Witnessing a very close friend suffer through typhoid (a waterborne bacterial disease contracted by digesting contaminated water) was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. I became indignant. How could this be? How can people not have access to clean water? Somebody has to do something to fix this! But, why now? Why did I suddenly care about solving an age-old problem? Why was I not indignant before this?



The sobering answer to all of these questions is that it took for it to get personal for me to be moved enough to do something about it. Before this, I was a tourist doing my annual duty of servitude, but now I was no longer a tourist; I was deeply involved, deeply affected, and permanently burdened. The lack of clean water in the developing becoming personal made it very real. I couldn't go back to my life of daily comfort and leave the developing world's pain in the rearview mirror, only to briefly revisit it on my next tour of service. Four years later, I continue to carry a burden for the plight of my friends. Every day, it is with me, in the same way, a fresh and painful wound that requires attention, focus, and concern is. As I reflect on this, I can't help but feel a bit of shame. How could I stand by for so long and do so little? The sad truth is that I became somewhat insensitive to the suffering of others. As much as I represented an empathetic servant of my fellow man, there were limits to my empathy. Those limits became visible and definitive when my or my family's comfort or security were threatened. The routine of visiting the developing world only to leave its woes behind upon returning to my prosperous homeland became easy. Unfortunately, my story of insensitivity is not unique. It has plagued many who have been privileged enough to live a comfortable life. 2020 was a year that will go down in the annals of history for many reasons—one of those reasons is the substantial amount of human suffering that made its way to many otherwise comfortable places. Many westerners, myself included, could not help but be affected by witnessing this suffering. It was odd and unfamiliar to sense feelings of empathy and concern for my privileged fellow countrymen. These feelings are typically reserved for my friends in the developing world or the poor and needy that much of the developed world ignores. The lesson from this is that human suffering is not reserved for the underprivileged alone. It is a condition that all of which all of humanity is susceptible to. I hope that those of us in the developed world never forget the pain of watching those we care about suffer. That we permanently carry the burden of one another. And that human suffering never again becomes a thing to be ignored or dismissed. The world can't help but be a better place when we all care for one another. JT www.partnersforwater.org For interim updates, please follow us on Instagram @partnersforwater


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