We Are the World, Petri Dishes and Guatemalan “Treasures”: My life as told through “The Life You Can Save” by Peter Singer

Last fall while on a long drive, P and I started playing our usual game of “Name the Tune/Musician.”   I pulled up “Hits of the 80s” and we were cruising through Bryan Adams, Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi when suddenly I felt I had jumped in Marty McFly’s time machine back into my 11-year-old body.

I was sitting by the radio in MS with my dad listening to Casey Kasem’s New Year’s Eve Top 100 countdown of 1985, ready to celebrate!  I had spent the entire year 100% OBSESSED with the song “We Are the World” by USA for Africa and I was convinced the countdown was just a formality.  As P and I drove toward home, my eyes filled with tears and my heart filled with emotion as I remembered the passion I had felt around that song and its message.  The idea of so many people uniting and donating their talents and money to help those struggling struck something deep inside.  The idea of people in the world starving to death that I could help was something I had never considered.  It’s possible this is where my “bleeding heart” originated, but I suspect it was planted inside me right from the beginning.  As I sat thinking about these things I realized the last months of my life and the latest places I’m spending my time and energy are not so far off from where my heart has ALWAYS been drawn.

We Are the World! (and check out the sweet hair!)
We Are the World! (and check out the sweet hair!)

I started thinking back over my life starting with my love of words that speak to my heart whether in person, books or song lyrics.  I thought of the way I have always loved to learn, of being absolutely transfixed by petri dishes and bacterial experiments memorizing bacterial names like they were NOTHING when I couldn’t figure out basic physics to save my life.  I recalled my college advisor asking if I’d ever considered medical school (NO!), and the excitement of seeing those words “We are pleased to welcome you to the class…”  I recalled SSGT Green helping me fill out the paperwork to join the Army (how did THAT happen?) and amazing times in HI and DC where compassion for patients and a love for educating and encouraging were instilled deeply by outstanding staff and colleagues.  I remembered difficult times in Iraq and with military medicine in general as I grew more and more frustrated with administrative roadblocks, monetary and politically motivated missions and the ever-increasing feeling that I was not able to really make a difference in the way I longed to.  I thought of making the decision to separate from the Army (not easy but the right one for our family of 2) and how that opened up doors for me to travel to Guatemala, Bali, Bainbridge, Thailand and Burma among others.  I began to believe more fully that it really is true.   When you follow your heart (and for me that means God’s voice in my life), you begin to see the patterns woven in right from the beginning to bring you to the place where you are most alive, doing what you were truly created to do.  All of those pieces of my life, when looked at in review make sense for the days of my life now.

Enter “The Life You Can Save” by Peter Singer.  Introduced to this book in 2011 after hearing a speaker challenge us to read it and pass it along, I connected with the message and started reading but never finished.  This January while focusing on my month of “finances and budgeting” I picked it up again at just the right time.

My review: I do not recommend most people read this book, to include those who:
– don’t want to read hard facts about money, wealth, poverty and inequality
– don’t want to feel bad/confused/conflicted/frustrated/guilty/mixed-up about the complicated issue of poverty
– don’t want to think about the fact that our current response to world poverty is “not only insufficient but morally indefensible”
– feel like you are doing all you can and reading this might make you mad
– are not interested in changing your life in ways that might require you to question things about the way you live

At some point during my reading, I felt each of these things and more but I knew that the simple clear words were true and that ignoring them didn’t make them any less so.  I realized my lack of knowledge, compassion and action when it comes to world poverty was really not acceptable to me anymore and so if you feel that way too, you might want to check out this book.  In it, you’ll see many facts that are hard to read and believe.  Things like:
TEN MILLION CHILDREN DIE FROM POVERTY EVERY YEAR.  (This is not ok!)
– although the average American believes our country spends 15-20 percent on foreign aid, we actually spend less than one percent
– a modest contribution from everyone who has enough to live comfortably (defined as eating out occasionally, buying bottled water, etc) would suffice to achieve the goal of lifting most of the world’s extremely poor people above the poverty line of $1.25/day

What I so appreciated about this book is the difficult suggestions Singer makes about what the majority of us who live comfortably could (and he says should) do to make a real difference.  I have read many books, articles and thoughts on these subjects and find these some of the most challenging but difficult to argue with.  At the same time, he addresses the common and uncommon arguments, thought processes and questions of those who don’t agree with his words and proposals and lays out the reasons we have such a hard time knowing what and how to DO anything.  I particularly loved the way he brought in sociological and historical reasons for the state of poverty and inequality of wealth in our world.  He spends some time going over the pros and cons of different types of aid organizations and ways we can be wise about where our money goes.  He also discusses the actual physiological and physical results of giving and generosity that are hard to argue with but also hard to translate to practical starting points for some.

Mr. Singer is a well-educated and respected ethicist and having a personal interest in medical and humanitarian ethics I particularly appreciated the arguments and unique ideas he brought to the subject in this area.  (I would love to discuss these with anyone who might decide to read this book!)

I think this book resonated with me for several reasons; It made me uncomfortable, defensive, sad, guilty, confused, encouraged and excited.  When I am feeling that mix of emotions it usually means something good is going on, something that means change is coming.  In this case, the change had already started and this book helped put more words, facts and motivation behind some of those changes and I closed the book inspired and grateful for people who share their gifts of knowledge through writing.

On finishing this book I recalled the way that my heart, interest and energy has always been drawn to issues of poverty and oppression (seriously SOMEONE reading this feels me on the We Are The World thing, right?), be it in my backyard or across the world.  I was reminded again that when our lives (money, time, energy and attention) are spent on the things that come from the deepest parts of us, we are usually happier, healthier, more productive people.

I reviewed the places I already give, examined the places I spend money regularly as well as the ways I make money, and made some adjustments in all those areas, including some new commitments.  While people tell me often that they “love” my life (and I’ve written about my feelings on this previously) the truth is I love my life too.  I have been given the gift of medical and military training, an understanding husband and flexibility of schedule that allows me to go places and do things that others sometimes can’t for a whole myriad of reasons.  These advantages have connected me with people doing amazing things and serving selflessly in areas all across the globe.  I have the opportunity for ongoing relationships with many of them, letting me advocate for the work they are doing and people they are serving from a place of face-to-face knowledge.

I don’t tell you all of this because there is anything great about me, but to encourage you to do what you can do where you are with what you have.  If you are already supporting organizations that work with underserved, marginalized or suffering groups of people- WAY TO GO!  I would LOVE to hear who you support and why; what is it that captures your heart?

If you don’t know where to start, are looking for new places to get involved or are looking for a personal connection to an organization, I’d love to help!  There are so many great organizations out there from HUGE non-profits to small groups doing unseen work that makes a difference in individual lives.  Start your research with groups that work with populations you care about or are already involved in!  If you are drawn to medical work, education, empowerment, after-school programs, food/nutrition/poverty, at risk-youth or family focused organizations among others, here are a few I have researched and supported and have ongoing relationships with (many of them through child or family sponsorships).  For many, I will be visiting the organizations regularly (some within the next year) and could help make personal connections with sponsored children or local workers with gifts, pictures, words or other information (or you could come with me on a trip!)

Bali Children’s Project: dedicated to education as a means of improving the lives of disadvantaged young people in Bali; BCP is founded on the belief that children, empowered to realize their potential, will enrich their own lives and their villages and contribute to the world we all share. (Your child sponsorship provides school fees, clothes and supplies as well as after-school programs and dance lessons!)

Our sponsor children in Bali!
Our sponsor children in Bali!

Soddo Christian Hospital– The vision of Soddo Christian Hospital is to provide excellent medical services, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to make disciples.  (You can sponsor families/medical personnel, donate toward medical supplies or education among other options)

The Mocha Club:  a community of people giving up the cost of a few mochas a month to fund development projects in Africa; Five main project areas: Clean Water, Education, Economic Freedom, Orphan Care, and Healthcare; Our vision is to provide a way for people who don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to make a difference in Africa. Our community-based website allows members to start a team and invite friends to join them in giving up the cost of a few mochas a month to support their chosen project.  (Join my team or make one of your own, this one is simple, inexpensive and fun!)

World Vision–  Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice; in nearly 100 countries around the world, serving all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender.

Compassion International– Christian child advocacy ministry that releases children from spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enables them to become responsible, fulfilled Christian adults. (Let me know if you are planning to sponsor a new child through Compassion for some cool possibilities!)

The Potter’s House (Guatemala): Located in the heart of Guatemala City is the largest dump in Latin America. More than 11,000 people live and work in and near the dump, and nearly 6,500 of them are children.  Potter’s house is a Christ-centered organization that fights poverty in Guatemala by promoting a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ while deploying holistic development programs that focus on at-risk children and youth.

Lay Tong Ku Medical Clinic (Thailand/Burma): It’s hard to find Lay Tong Ku on a map much less a workable website for the newly dedicated clinic!  If you are interested in sponsoring a medic’s salary in this clinic providing care to severely underserved and oppressed people, there is great need and you have the opportunity for ongoing relationship here if that sounds fun to you!

529
some of the dedicated medical staff at the Lay Tong Ku medical clinic dedication

Girls on the Run (West Sound chapter): We inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.  You may not be aware that right here in the Kitsap peninsula we have many children living at and below the poverty level.  Many girls who would most benefit from this amazing program are not able to participate because they can’t pay the program fee.

Home of Hope Lebanon: Focus on creating a nurturing, encouraging, and helpful environment, which shall: first of all, help the children to recover from the traumatic events which they have passed through; and second, to educate and raise the children to be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually prepared to face an increasingly biased future.  (This is one of my favorite “connection” stories.  The need is so great here, from money to workers/volunteers to encouragement!)

Hope House (Hattiesburg, MS): Hope House Ministries seeks to serve Christ by providing emotional, physical, and spiritual support to the homeless following the example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta as we attempt to respond to the call of Matthew 25:31-46.  (My dad and step-mom are highly invested in this awesome ministry and helped many of you provide warm sleeping bags and other needed gifts this Christmas.)

If you are interested in hearing more information about any of these I’d love to hear from you.
If you are interested in reading this book, let me know in the comments and I’ll pass it along, it’s one of the requirements of reading it.
Also, if you know what the number one song of 1985’s Top 100 Countdown was, I’ll send you another fun prize! (no cheating!)

3 thoughts on “We Are the World, Petri Dishes and Guatemalan “Treasures”: My life as told through “The Life You Can Save” by Peter Singer

  1. Arthur, Scott March 8, 2015 / 7:54 pm

    Dawn,
    I love this story and I love your heart. You say exactly what I feel about poverty! Keep sending these posts–love it!! As far as number 1 in 1985, I’ll go with “don’t you forget about me” that song in the Breakfast club.

    Scott Arthur, RN, BSN, CCRN
    Senior Account Manager
    Abiomed, Inc.
    Cell: 901-606-4538

    • Dawn Muench March 9, 2015 / 6:50 am

      Hey Scott- thanks so much for always encouraging me when I put my (crazy?) thoughts “out there”! It means a lot 🙂 I do love that song…..and it was in the top 10 I think, but not number one 🙂 Much love and yeah for oneness in poverty-awareness 🙂

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