The question(s) – it runs from the ridiculous (Guy Noir – “One man is still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions”) to the sublime (Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question.)
- Why wasn’t I born into life in a garbage dump?
- What happens to all the others – the ones who aren’t the “Justus'” of the world? What becomes of them?
It’s a long way from the garbage pile outside Kigali, Rwanda to the “Halls of Harvard”. Like the proverbial starfish plucked from the shore and tossed back to the life-giving sea, Justus Uwayesu is that “one” who forces us to think about “life’s persistent questions”.
Justus is exceptional for his having been seen at just the right time by Clare Effiong and for the fact of his innate aptitude and scholasticism. Once he was fed, cleaned and housed, he got to First Grade and was off and running. Justus comes from Rwanda to America and is faced with the question whose answer continues to elude us.
Fresh from a land dominated by two ethnic groups — the majority Hutu – and the Tutsi who died en masse with some moderate Hutu in the 1994 conflict — Justus says he is delighted by Harvard’s stew of nationalities and lifestyles. He was pleasantly taken aback by the blasé acceptance of openly gay students — “that’s not something we hear about in Rwanda”— and disturbed to find homeless beggars in a nation otherwise so wealthy that “you can’t tell who is rich and who isn’t.” (NY Times – Linked above.) And so, the question:
3. How is it that, in a nation as wealthy as ours, we have homeless beggars and hungry children and millions who don’t have adequate – or any – health insurance?
The point was driven home recently in a conversation with a friend who has worked all their life. In recent years they have contracted a condition which significantly limits their mobility and ability to work. They don’t take medications for several other conditions – high blood pressure and cholesterol issues – because they can’t afford it. They apportion medication needed to treat their more recently contracted condition, spreading it out over days and weeks because they can’t afford it in the dose prescribed and insurance coverage is questionable. They have spent hours with “navigators” and folks at VT Health Connect and can not get straight answers to their questions.
Right after my conversation with this individual I drove to an Oral Surgeon to have the next procedure done on my way to a couple of new teeth. Insurance doesn’t cover this procedure; but I have the means to pay for it. The distance between me and my friend is as formidable as that between the garbage dumps of Kigali and the halls of Harvard. I have worked no harder. We are ethnically and racially similar. We have made different choices in our lives, but nothing that justifies the chasm between my circumstances and theirs.
I wonder what it is we are sending students like Justus away with. If they have done their homework they have acquired a good education.They have learned skills, made contacts and connections. They have increased their earning power. Maybe they have even landed a job. But we are also giving them something else. We present them with this paradox – that the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet – the one with all kinds of moral claims as we go out to police the world and protect democracy – Why can’t we feed, house and insure our own people?
It’s a persistent question; but is it an “unanswerable” one? Or does it have an answer we simply don’t want to face up to?