Post Cambodia Thoughts

December 26, 2007

I was in Cambodia last week (19-23 Dec 2007) on a short medical mission trip.  My mind is a swirl post-Cambodia and I’m writing this to distil some of my thoughts. Excuse the length. You know how I get when I’m in pensive mood.

It was (as expected) a fruitful, blessed and soul-stirring trip. Since this was my second trip up, it was really good to see some friends again and meet new ones. Seeing the faces in the photographs that I look at every day now animated – living, breathing and laughing brought immense joy to my soul. A handful of photos from my last trip in a $5 photo album was met with delighted squeals of glee (from the kids) and frankly, the look on Pastor’s face when I gave him the album was worth the amount of money I paid for the camera.

Last year, I was slightly alarmed when a small, obviously grubby child, put his arms around me. Who knows what I might catch, I thought. This year, they pretty much clambered all over me – the camera, balloons and my hilariously appalling Khmer are a huge draw. I didn’t care. I have all the hugs in the world for them. I think I left a piece of my heart behind when some of the girls started crying when we boarded the bus.

I also tried to learn some Khmer this trip. My new greeting to Pastor is “mui t’ngai bai dong, mui dong mui krup” (take 1 tablet 3 times a day). It is pretty much the only thing I can say in Khmer after doing dispensary for 2 days. He then laughs and then replies “mui t’ngai bai dong, mui dong mui slap-pree-er” (take 1 spoon 3 times a day). I have no interest in languages but there is something about trying to learn another person’s language that communicates love and the desire to be friends. The other person’s eyes lighting up in comprehension is very wonderful to see. Trying to put my translator out of job proved to be a fun little game. Yes, I’m easily amused.

(I just bought a stack of Khmer language tapes for my next trip up. Finally found them in an obscure little book store. Good luck to me.)

But post-trip, one word crowds out all others – compassion. On the second day of clinics, a lady came in with a huge gash on her finger. The short version of the story was that her husband had come at her with a knife because she didn’t cook him dinner. This is ludicrous to me. I’ve had friends in abusive relationships, to which my solution is always “to dump the [insert rude word]” but it occurred to me this trip that some people don’t have the same options as I do. It was very sobering to think that I can lose everything tomorrow but as long as I can work, I will never starve and will never be a dire situation I can’t get out of.

On the way out of Preak Tual, Seetoh, our Khmer-Chinese driver, told me that he thought that the work that we were doing was very meaningful and how timely it was that the team was around to help the lady. She wouldn’t have anywhere to go otherwise, he said. And indeed that realization was written all over her face. Later, he mused aloud about how privileged he was compared to the people there. My heart grieved at the irony.

A prayer I prayed many years ago comes to mind – that God’s love shines through me, even if it meant that it was through the cracks of a broken heart. When I was reminded of it recently, I thought to myself that it was a really stupid thing to pray for and quickly revised the prayer to something less sado-masochistic. Why on earth would anyone want to feel for problems that aren’t even theirs? But I’m coming full circle on my thoughts on this. Empathy is something that is fast eroding and the desire and willingness to stretch out a hand of compassion is eroding faster still. But it is compassion for one another that strengthens our common humanity. It makes me think of this passage from Matthew 9 –

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

I don’t know. I’d hate to be one of those people who is so self-absorbed as to not see the “weary and scattered” and not be “moved with compassion for them”. I pray that my heart continues to break each time a grubby little kid derives indescribable joy from seeing his face on the LCD screen of my camera, when a mother who has more kids than she can feed, presses my hands in hers and says “Aur Kuhn” (thank you) for giving them vitamins, when I’m told to pray for money for food, when the harsh realities of domestic violence, poverty and sickness stare me defiantly in the face. May God grant me a heart of compassion and may I never be able to walk away from a need that I can and should fill.

(Good Lord, I’m such a bleeding heart.)

Cambodia makes me feel simultaneously better and worse about my life. Better because any problem I have pales in comparison to theirs. They worry about things that are at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – food, shelter, safety. Anything I worry about is at the apex of the Maslow pyramid. For the reminder that I am immensely blessed, I am thankful. But it makes me feel worse because I think about the opportunity and potential (often wasted) that is all around me. How terribly frustrating.

A lot more scattered thoughts and memories from the trip but I’ll leave it for another day. In the meantime, I pray that 2008 is a year filled with compassion and hope. May the heartbreaking desperation and need in this world not be enough to keep you from trying to make this world better place in your own special way.

Prey Ong pro tien poh (God bless)!

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