Oct. 5, 2012: A snowy Irish evening teaches a painful lesson, by Amanda Wahlmeier

October 5, 2012 by

While working on my master’s degree in history at University College, Dublin, I volunteered at a bookstore run by Oxfam International.

Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in more than 90 countries. They work directly with communities to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods and have a say in decisions that affect them. The store accepts second-hand books, movies and music, and then sells these items to benefit the organization. With just two part-time managers, Oxfambooks relies on volunteers to stay open throughout the week.

Working with Oxfam and living in Dublin introduced me to a broader spectrum of poverty and injustice in the human experience than I had witnessed during my years in Kansas. The most poignant example happened early in December 2010.

We closed Oxfambooks early that night because of the snow. Unfortunately, my boots were not waterproof, and trudging through the mud and muck made them quite wet. I was wearing two pairs of socks underneath, but they were completely soaked by the time I got to the bus stop.

After waiting for nearly 45 minutes, the bus finally arrived and my feet were so cold they absolutely ached. As I sat on the bus — scowling and complaining to myself about my cold, aching feet — I looked out the bus window and saw some trash bags in a doorway. Then I saw the trash bags move.

The realization hit me that I wasn’t seeing trash bags, but a homeless person under a black blanket, huddled on the threshold of a building.

Suddenly, my cold feet didn’t seem so bad. This person was lying on the ground — and if his or her whole body felt like my feet, I can’t even imagine how horrible that felt.

While I was slowly thawing on the bus and had a nice warm apartment to go home to, this person was facing 15 more hours of intense, bitter cold with no sun to even pretend to shine.

We were still in the city centre so people were passing by.  Not one person even gave the lump on the threshold a glance. Maybe, like me, they thought it was trash bags. Maybe they did notice and simply rationalized that the person was probably a drunk who deserved laying out in the freezing cold. Either way, no one did anything.

Are people really this desensitized to each other? Rather than stopping and helping, we just keep on moving with our ear buds firmly blocking out the outside world — waiting for someone else to step up so we can applaud them. Do people really not care?

And now, after I’ve pitched my little fit, can I really talk? I didn’t get off the bus; I don’t know what I would have done if I had.

Maybe that’s the problem everyone has. We want to do something, but we have no idea how we can help. We drown out the injustice of life with our iPods and cell phones because we don’t want to feel that guilt that comes with noticing the unpleasantness in someone else’s life.

If we don’t see it, it doesn’t happen, right? Maybe that’s my problem — I do see it.

— Amanda Wahlmeier was raised in WaKeeney and Phillipsburg, Kan., and moved to Concordia in 2011.  She is the curator at the National Orphan Train Complex.

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