Life, Big and Small

A few years ago, I attended a conference on war and health in Seattle, and one of the keynote speakers was Chris Hedges, a former journalist who had covered several conflicts around the world. After he finished his presentation, the floor was opened for questions. I’ve since forgotten much of his speech and nearly all of the Q&A session, except for the final question. Someone in the audience asked him how his life had been affected by what he had seen, and how he readjusted to a life of relative comfort in the US.

At that point, he sighed and said that one of his young children had asked him something similar when he was preparing her lunch. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like “how can you be happy here making me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you’ve seen so many big, important things like war around the world?” And he replied that “it’s because I’ve seen so many wars that I know how important the little things are, like making sandwiches” (again, I’m paraphrasing).

He then sat down at his seat on the stage with tears in eyes, effectively ending the Q&A session. Several people standing in line at the microphones who were waiting to ask their questions returned to their seats. It was a powerful, memorable way to end a public speaking appearance. Nothing else needed to be said.

3 thoughts on “Life, Big and Small

  1. That a journalist can ’emotion-up’ when something sticks in his throat and mind is not surprising. That he can do so on public stage in a situation so different from that what provided the memory, is altogether human ~ and perhaps admirable. I’ve done it myself. On reading this, I remembered my time in the Malawi Emergency, when I could only stand and watch as villagers under savage attack fled across the unmarked border as young boys with guns shot at them or chased them with long machetes. One woman was carrying a small baby. She stumbled, both her arms were hacked off and she was left, baby beside her on the ground. She stood up and somehow picked up the baby with her two stubs, each spurting blood. I watched as she made it to the dirt road that marks the border. She and other refugees climbed into my vehicle and I drove to the nearest field hospital. I hadn’t eaten that day so I ate my sandwich as I drove. Later I visited her in the hospital. Her stumps had been sewn up and she was still clutching the baby. She was fantastically beautiful. I took photographs. Later on the same day on the same road my car was stopped by young men with guns. They took the cartoons of cigarettes I kept for such occasions and also took my assistant. I watched in the rear mirror as they pushed him around at the back of the car then shot him through the head, I drove away leaving his body in the dust. Only when back in Lilongwe writing a report did I cry.

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