That the Two Might Be One

Reflections on Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr.Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (2003) by Tracy Kidder.

The first step in social conscience growth for most HKIS students is to awaken to the disparity between their lives and the lives of others who have much less and suffer due to inequality.  Some students are so disturbed by this revelation that they take a radical turn wanting to ‘change the world.’  Over time, however, most students (and teachers as well) learn to live with the disturbing contradictions between these two worlds.

Tracy Kidder’s biography of Dr. Paul Farmer tells the story of an immensely talented man who never lost the radical sense that inequality was a moral failure.  Walking through the Charles de Gaulle airport upon their arrival, Kidder commented on the incongruity of this strikingly modern structure with Haiti’s poverty:

“It seems like another world.” Farmer looked up, smiling, and in a chirpy-sounding voice he said, “But that feeling has the disadvantage of being . . .” He paused a beat.  “Wrong.”  “Well, it depends on how you look at it.”  “No, it doesn’t,” he replied, in a very pleasant voice.  “The polite thing to say would be, ‘You’re right.  It’s a parallel universe.  There really is no relation between the massive accumulation of wealth in one part of the world and abject misery in another.’  He looked at me. He’d made me laugh.  “You know I’m being funny about something serious,” he said (p. 218).

Throughout the book the reader seeks to understand this man who shuttles between Harvard medical school, Haiti, Peru, and Russia; who heals patients enthusiastically at anytime, visits prisoners, writes grant proposals, gives lectures, teaches courses, writes books, and keeps up with with a global network of co-workers, supporters, and friends via email. Kidder concludes:

I felt as if for that moment I could see a little way into his mind.  It seemed like a place of hyperconnectivity.  At moments like that, I thought that what he wanted was to erase both time and geography, connecting all parts of his life and tying them instrumentally to a world in which he saw intimate, inescapable connections between the gleaming corporate offices of Paris and New York and a legless man lying on the mud floor of a hut in the remotest part of remote Haiti.  Of all the world’s errors, he seemed to feel, the most fundamental was the ‘erasing’ of people, the ‘hiding away’ of suffering. ‘My big struggle is how people can not care, erase, not remember’ (p. 218-219).

This anecdote summarizes the calling of the social conscience educator: to reveal to students the interconnectedness and equality of all humans, and to find a way for students to remember this essential oneness throughout their lives.  Mountains Beyond Mountains inspires and provokes students and teachers to consider a life that does not make false accommodations, but rather strives with all of one’s energy to bring the two worlds together for the sake of healing.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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