Quantifiable Responsibility

I don’t speak or write very often about the subject of fear. It is not that I am such a brave fellow . . . it is just that all the nooks and crannies of my Scotch/Irish disposition seem to be filled up with happy stuff. I try to choose “happy” over “scared.” In the past thirty years of international travel, however, there have been some occasions when I probably should have been more afraid. 

In 2004, I had just returned to Denver from a physically exhausting trip to Papua New Guinea, Tonga, and India, and was headed that July morning for Montenegro. I experienced a situation that shook me to my emotional core. It was a fear I had never known before. 

In order for me to catch my international flight, our alarm clock sounded at 4:30 Saturday morning. As I was headed to the shower I was nearly overwhelmed by a most unusual and austere sense. An intruding and powerful temptation was hammering me: “You have absolutely no need to head off to the Balkans this morning. You are exhausted. Go back to bed and sleep. There is really no quantitative measure of responsibility to what you are doing. No one can say, ’Jim Jackson did not go to old Yugoslavia today, so forty-two people died.’ Since it can’t be measured or quantified, there can be no measurable responsibility, either. You are justified in staying home!” 

Indeed, it was a strange confrontation that had taken place on the way from my bed to the shower. The implications of the incident frightened me. It was true: I was not observably responsible for goodness that might or might not come as a result of my going to old Yugoslavia early on that Saturday morning. No other person on the outside of me was forcing me to get up and catch that flight. My responsibility ran along a different line. 

I knew I needed to get on that airplane. The simplicity of responding to what I knew I needed to do was the real issue of responsibility. The rest would flow as a consequence of my obedience. I somehow knew that the compelling temptation to compromise—to lie down and go back to sleep—would have neutralized my clear imperative. I also intuitively knew that the neutralization would be contagious and affect my focus and dedication to what I was ultimately trying to accomplish. Exhaustion could not even compare to what it would have felt like to quit. 

For the next few weeks I could not get the incident of temptation out of my mind:There is really no quantitative measure of responsibility to what you are doing. No one can say, “Jim Jackson did not go to old Yugoslavia today, so forty-two people died.” Since it can’t be measured or quantified, there can be no measurable responsibility, either. You are justified in staying home! It scared me every time I thought about it! 

Six months earlier, while traveling in Zambia, I had performed a needs assessment at the Mwandi hospital. It was beautifully situated on a wide bend of the river that flowed into the great Zambezi River. I had already asked most of my needs assessment questions to Dr. Kaonga Wezi, who was the director of the hospital, when he related to me some tragic news. His wife was also a doctor in the pediatrics and community health departments. Dr. Wezi told me that he and his doctor- wife were getting ready to leave Zambia. Recently, their 2½ year old son had contracted pneumonia. That shouldn’t have been too difficult for mom and dad to handle, since they were both well-trained doctors, and mom was an experienced pediatrician.

Without warning, however, the little child died with both of them there. The complicated grief was unbearable. They had succumbed to the overwhelming and paralyzing temptation of concluding that, “If we are both doctors and cannot even save our own baby boy from pneumonia, then we should not be accepting the responsibility of trying to save the children of other people.” The mother had already moved out of Mwandi, having declared that she would never again practice in the field of pediatrics. 

My heart broke for them. It appeared they were accepting the quantifiable results of the failure of one situation to define their future responsibilities. 

In contrast to that sad situation of perceived responsibility in Zambia, I was reminded of my good friend Dr. Kunar who ran a free clinic in Rajahmundry, a city of nearly a half-million people in eastern India. He belonged to a family of the high Brahmin caste, but had specifically felt the need to take medical attention and help to theuntouchables, the lowest ranking of the people of India. That was not a very politically correct decision. “You see, Dr. Jackson, it was a miracle that I am a doctor in India. I was the first person to graduate from the medical school with that stated commitment. I finished second in my class, even though they did everything they could to turn me out and keep me from passing my exams. The governments of India had not addressed the severe needs of the poor and powerless. But I was supposed to be a doctor to the poorest people in this area, and it is now happening.” 

That was the same attitude that had made the endeavors of Mother Teresa such a startling phenomenon in India. As she had admitted, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” Mother Teresa and my friend Dr. Kunar had each met face to face with insurmountable oppression and resistance in India. Others had demanded that their dedication to the task and their devotion to the hurting people were really quite foolish, unnecessary, and out of sync with the reality of the culture. 

Neither Mother Teresa nor Dr. Kunar yielded to the idea that you have absolutely no need to get involved in helping the untouchables in Calcutta or Rajahmundry. No one can possibly hold it against you if you never showed up to help, and thousands of people died because you were not there. Since the results can’t be measured or quantified, there can be no measurable responsibility, either. Each patently rejected that line of reasoning. 

Mother Teresa and Dr. Kunar were each dedicated to the understanding that even though they would never live to see the full results of their efforts, their simple and positive response to what they knew they should be doing was the real issue of responsibility. Over the years I have tried to keep track of the work of my friend Dr. Kunar in Rajahmundry. No one else really cared about the untouchable rock breakers, who earned the equivalent of four dollars a week, and on average lived to be only twenty-seven years old. 

I am also eternally grateful that I got up, showered, and caught my flight to Montenegro that Saturday morning in July. The thought of justifiably rationalizing out of what I know I ought to do still frightens me. I want my life to be defined by instant and complete obedience to what I intuitively know I ought to do, rather than cleverly justifying a defense that might ultimately neutralize the intended good.