What makes an orphanage experience so powerful? In a phrase, it is the collective foundation-shaking first-hand experience with two incomprehensible and paradoxical human realities of love and suffering.
“The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says the only thing that really converts people is “the face of the other….” When the face of the other (especially the suffering face) is received and empathized with, it leads to transformation of our whole being.”
– Richard Rohr Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking (CAC adaptation)
During the first semester in Humanities I in Action our in-class study considers the dark side of the human condition through William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, various psychological and sociological experiments, and the study of genocide. However, many students tell us that these realities don’t really hit home until we visit the Foshan orphanage in China, which personalizes all the challenges that children and young people face in other parts of the world, as can be seen from comments made by two boys who were on the trip:
“Before this weekend, I was just like anybody else that goes to this school. I knew about genocide and that sometimes bad things happen, but it never really applied to me. It was just sort of over there while I was over here looking at it through a telescope. Since Foshan, however, everything has changed” (Andrew).
“The most obvious reaction I had during Foshan was about the reality of the experience. During the trip, a sense of reality came into me. I realized that this group of orphans was only a fraction of the huge 4,000,000 babies that have been abandoned. Before this trip, I could talk about the numbers and statistics and details about the situation in China, but I didn’t truly realize the mass of numbers like this. However, when I went to Foshan, everything became real” (Jordan).
However, facing sad realities is only part of the story of service. Taking the students to an orphanage for a weekend, combined with curricular examples of people making a difference that we draw upon all year, helps students discover something else about the human condition – that there is something very right with us as well. Students personally experience a deep empathy within themselves for the babies, toddlers and special needs’ children that we meet, as Sofia commented:
“I felt like I was making a difference in this child’s life. The second and third day the same child would look in the crowd of people who walk in and find me; he would attempt to run to me and give me a hug. As I walked in, I saw his face light up and I realized that I wanted to do something. I no longer saw them as “orphans” anymore, but as children who needed love and compassion.”
These powerful impressions are brought to bear on our academic work, and students return to the classroom to write personal narratives of their experience. The Foshan trip becomes an important “text” to add to our intensive in-class work. Emilee’s comment illustrates the big questions that students consider after the Foshan experience:
“Ever since starting this course I have begun to understand how much suffering there really is in the world, and how unimportant the things in my life are. It’s also been very hard for me to grasp the fact that 200 million children could be abandoned because of their gender, and how this is just the tip of the iceberg with our world’s problems. Although it has been difficult and very overwhelming to deal with all of the emotions I am now faced with, I am extremely satisfied with myself for taking this course . . . . I know that I can use the emotions I am feeling to excel me forward.”
For years I have asked myself what makes these trips to an orphanage so powerful. Theologian Richard Rohr crystalizes our collective experience when he notes that personal transformation occurs in the presence of great love or great suffering; together they form a combustible mix that both undermines and overwhelms most students’ understanding of reality. Such experiences go far beyond the rational and analytical fare of in-the-classroom humanities study; yet we know that real life beyond the classroom artifice is marked most deeply by both love and suffering. This is why the Foshan trip propels students beyond the academic, and into another state of consciousness.
Thus, the Foshan experience is vital to our first semester study, which culminates in mid-December with an essay answering the question how the class materials and experiences have influenced, deepened, and/or challenged students’ worldview. We expect that the Foshan experience, in the context of our curriculum, will once again be an important catalyst of deep learning for our students.
To hear Richard Rohr discuss the power of love and suffering, listen here, 40-45 minutes.