I remember the first time it occurred to me that if there was a God, he or she had adopted a strict hands-off policy when it came to life on earth.
I was on a plane flying back to the States after spending six weeks in Africa documenting the plight of orphaned children for a relief organization. Some of that time was spent in Southern Sudan in a region dubbed the Death Triangle because the vast majority of people were either starving to death, dying from malaria or cholera, or being burned or macheted to death by government forces from Khartoum.
When I told the woman sitting next to me about the horrific scenes I had witnessed and pulled out a stack of pictures to show her, she sighed.
“I don’t mean to sound crass,” she said, the impatience audible in her tone. “But the way I see it, this is God’s way of population control.”
If God was up there and paying attention, I was sure that woman would have been struck down in her seat. But that didn’t happen. She just went back to sipping her diet soda, munching on pretzels and reading her book – as if she had an implicit understanding with the higher ups that when it came to suffering, she got a pass.
Ten years later I was back in Africa, this time staring at a 19-year-old-girl sitting quietly on what appeared to be a white plastic sheet, cradling an infant in her arms. The temperature had climbed to a sweltering 115 degrees and flies swarmed around her. The relief worker I was with told me that the white plastic sheet was actually a body bag, and explained that the girl’s family was so overwhelmed carrying for other sick relatives that they had left her and her baby to die alone from the AIDS virus that racked their young bodies.
Just two weeks earlier, I had walked into an eye doctor’s office for the first time in my life and learned I was going blind. No God was coming to the rescue for that 19-year-old girl and her tiny infant. And while my eye situation couldn’t compare to the horrifying reality in front of me, I knew there wasn’t likely to be help on the way for me, either.
It’s been seven years since that second trip to Africa and I’ve given up trying to make sense of the unthinkable diseases, disasters and actions that cause a teenage girl to waste away alone on her own body bag, wash away entire communities of people with a single wave, or put a random death sentence on a nine-month-old baby. Or of why it is that some people seem to go through life unscathed, while others are besieged with unbearable suffering and tragedy. But as I’ve battled my own fears over a future without eyesight, even while chastising myself for mourning my lost vision when so many people have it so much worse, I’ve somehow stumbled on this powerful force called Now. And for me, it’s become both my lifeline and secret to navigating life.
Maybe it’s my complete lack of peripheral vision that keeps me focused on the present moment when the world is plagued by chaos and misery, but after spending weeks in a dark hole terrified over a future I couldn’t control, I’ve learned that by concentrating on Now, I can handle the challenges in front of me, am more fully conscious of what matters to me, and have the ability to embrace life in a way I never did before.
For me, Now means soaking up the moments with my husband and two daughters, ages 12 and nine, and memorizing every inch of their faces so that should the day come when I don’t see them, I’ll still be able to picture them clearly in my mind. It means being conscious enough to realize that when I’m feeling stressed and short-fused, I have the power to stop what I’m doing and breathe so I don’t waste precious time being angry and causing stress for people around me. Now also means reducing expenses, which means less client work, which means more time with family and friends. It means doing everything I can to preserve my remaining eyesight: eating healthy, working out and exploring alternative therapies. It means writing solely because I love to write. And it means letting go of accumulated hurt and resentment, because I’ve learned that the moments in front of me are too valuable to be burdened by baggage from the past.
As I’ve listened to news reports in recent weeks, first about protestors throughout the Middle East being murdered simply for expressing their desire to be free, then about the enormity of the loss in Japan – the thousands dead, the half million people displaced, the estimated $100 billion in property damages, and the unfolding nuclear crisis, I’ve found myself spiraling back into that dark hole; battling a mix of sadness, outrage and an overwhelming sense of helplessness regarding both the current state of the world and a seemingly hopeless future.
Then it hit me that maybe this is the point of life – for us all to realize that nobody is immune to suffering, that life isn’t fair, that God doesn’t take sides, and that instead of looking to an outside force to come to our rescue, we need to be the support and help we all need. That maybe instead of expending energy worrying about what awaits us, we should concentrate on doing whatever we can Now to make life better for each other and ourselves.
Because Now is something we can all do something about.
This essay first appeared on Emily Rapp's blog and is dedicated to her son, Ronan, who was recently diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease.