One day I noticed kids torturing a small kitten at the school in rural Thailand where I taught English and safe sex and pretty much anything they would let me get away with. The boys were throwing things at it, handling it roughly, and the poor, malnourished thing already looked close to death without their help. I scooped the kitten up in a box, drawing lots of stares and comments from the students, who were used to the tall white woman behaving strangely. Teachers hold a position of high honor in Thai society. When children approach their teachers' desks, some teachers require that they do so on their knees, as if the kids weren't already short enough to delineate the difference in worth. I never asked my kids to get on their knees, and, in fact, I would sometimes sit on the floor with them, which really just made everyone uncomfortable. The kids more so than anyone, I think. I did other undignified things like play with the kids at recess instead of eating in the teacher's lounge and said hello to them before they said hi to me (another sign of respect, kids have to wai adults before adults say hi to them). This completely upset the social order, and teachers were completely nonplussed that I would give away my power, possibly even their power, with my American egalitarianism. Anyway. No one respected me. That's the point.
So I scoop up this disgusting kitten from the kids that were tormenting it to prove yet another point. Not only will I not conform to your hierarchy, but I also want to prove that animals have value and we should not pick them up by their tails, etc. I will take this kitten to the vet and show everyone that, with a little bit of care, things can flourish. This was going to be a great object lesson, and I would get a pet cat to eat all the lizards in my house. Win win. Someone found me a cardboard box and I placed the cat inside. It slid around the slick surface and meowed pitifully. I drove towards town with a new sense of purpose and the box in the seat next to me. Save cat. Prove to everyone that I can save things, that animals have value. I took the cat to the vet in town. They almost didn't even accept the cat. From what I could tell, they were mainly a boarding service for small toy breed dogs wearing clothes. There is a hierarchy in the animal world as well in Thailand. The most useless but most adorable animals like bunnies and Pomeranians are venerated and dressed in shoes and frilly dresses. Potentially useful animals like oxen and strong guard dogs are worked hard or ignored. I set my scrawny cat on the counter and managed to get across that I wanted the cat to be taken care of, no expense spared. Don't worry -- I paid cash for human operations in Thailand so this, at worst, would have cost about $20. They took the cat begrudgingly, I think, but I was still convinced that with a little bit of medicine, the cat would be fine.
Wouldn't you know it, they called me the next morning and told me to come pay and collect my dead cat. They handed me back the same box that was somewhat lighter (I wonder how much a cat's soul weighs), but still very much full of dead cat. I paid what I owed and said thanks, though I'm not sure for what. I wonder if they even tried to save it. I made Phillip participate in a somber ceremony and burial underneath the palm trees where we hung our laundry. I never mentioned it to my students and they never asked, because I'm sure they knew the outcome all along. Also, as an aside, trying to prove a point in someone else's cultural context just makes you look foolish. I'm still not comfortable having kids kneel or bow before me, but I do know that it's up to me to conform and not the other way around.
The dead cat situation is analogous to my career of being helpful. Truly, all I want to do is help, but sometimes it just feels like everything dies anyway, you know? Right now, I don't even want to believe that taking a cat to the vet will make a difference because it creates false expectations. When it comes to the earthquakes in Nepal, my first response is to go, to help, but then I realize there's nothing for me to do. My friends bear such heavy burdens, and I can feel the weight, but can't alleviate their suffering. It is a privilege to be an idealist, to have come from a world that, for the most part, if you go with the flow, you will be successful and safe. If someone reminds me of that one starfish that Jesus or whoever rescued from the beach, I will punch them in the neck. Today I am feeling burdens, thinking of that poor cat and wishing for a victory.