I don’t speak or write very often about the subject of fear. It isn’t that I’m such a brave fellow. It’s 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. Over decades 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, I had set our alarm clock for 4:30 Saturday morning. As I was headed to the shower, I was nearly overwhelmed by a most unusual and austere sensation. A powerful temptation was hammering me: “You have absolutely no need to head off to the Balkans this morning. You’re exhausted. Go back to bed and sleep. There is really no quantitative measure of responsibility for what you’re doing. No one can say, ‘Jim Jackson didn’t go to old Yugoslavia today, so forty-two people died.’ Since that can’t be measured or quantified, there can be no measurable responsibility either. You’re justified in staying home!” 

Indeed, it was a strange confrontation. The implications of the incident frightened me. It was true: I wasn’t observably responsible for goodness that might or might not come as a result of trip to old Yugoslavia. No other person 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 couldn’t even compare to what it would have felt like to quit. 

For the next few weeks, I couldn’t get the incident out of my mind: There is really no quantitative measure of responsibility for what you’re doing. No one can say, “Jim Jackson didn’t go to old Yugoslavia today, so forty-two people died.” Since that can’t be measured or quantified, there can be no measurable responsibility either. You’re 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 Study at the Mwandi Mission Hospital. The hospital was beautifully situated on a wide bend of the river that flowed into the great Zambezi River. I had already asked hospital director Dr. Wezi Kaonga most of my needs-assessment questions, when he related to me some tragic news. His wife was also a doctor in the pediatrics and community-health departments. Dr. Kaonga told me that he and his doctor-wife were getting ready to leave Zambia. Recently their two-and-a-half-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 grief was unbearable. They had succumbed to the overwhelming and paralyzing temptation of concluding, “If we’re both doctors and cannot even save our own baby boy from pneumonia, then we shouldn’t accept the responsibility of trying to save other people’s children.” The mother had already moved out of Mwandi, having declared that she would never again practice in the field of pediatrics. 

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My heart broke for them. It appeared they were allowing the quantifiable results of failure in 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 half a 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 the untouchables, the lowest-ranking people of India. 

That wasn’t a very politically correct decision, as Dr. Kunar explained to me: “You see, Dr. Jackson, it was a miracle that I’m 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’s happening now.” 

That was the same attitude that had made the endeavors of Mother Teresa such a startling phenomenon in India. She might not have been able to change the world alone, but the stone she cast across the waters created many ripples.1 Mother Teresa and my friend Dr. Kunar had each faced insurmountable oppression and resistance in India. Others had demanded that their dedication to their tasks and their devotion to hurting people were really quite foolish, unnecessary, and out of sync with the reality of the culture. 

Yet neither Mother Teresa nor Dr. Kunar yielded to the idea that they had absolutely no need to get involved in helping the untouchables in Calcutta or Rajahmundry. No one could possibly have held it against them if thousands of people died because they never showed up to help. Since those results couldn’t be measured or quantified, there could be no measurable responsibility either. Yet each of them patently rejected that line of reasoning. 

Mother Teresa and Dr. Kunar knew that even though they would never live to see the full results of their efforts, their simple and willing obedience to doing what they knew they should do was the real issue of responsibility. Over the years I’ve 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. Dr. Kunar didn’t have to do what he was doing, but he followed his heart and dedicated himself to doing what needed to be done.

I’m eternally grateful that I got up, showered, and caught my flight to Montenegro that Saturday morning in July. The thought of how easy it was for me to rationalize staying at home rather than doing what I knew 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 choice that might ultimately neutralize any intended good I might do.