Returning to the United States from overseas is not what it used to be for me. Used to be I thought I smelled bacon and eggs even before the plane landed. Used to be the sight of a dollar bill filled me with a sudden assurance. After weeks away it represented my dad, I guess because in my memory he was the first person to handle money, and I would phone him to say I was home, and be so glad that I was. And once, returning after covering an earthquake in Turkey, I cried and shook at the airport Starbuck’s counter when a clerk handed me a clean white cup, so broken were things over there, so clean and ordered over here. Who could possibly deserve this place?
Last week the 767 landed in Miami from Port-au-Prince, two worlds crossed in 90 minutes. Gleaming cars smoothed their way down the highway, and the airport wasn’t being run off generators. But I confess to a lack of feeling for the order and solidity, a thinly worn trust in the assurance of life and peace the United States has represented for me and many millions, coming for the first time or the hundredth.
It’s this. Our crumbling hides itself a little better here. Beneath the clean streets and shining cars, we are biting and devouring one another at an ever greater clip. We have the richest nation in the world, abundant natural resources, and expansive space, but the poverty in our collective soul is growing.
Haiti has a huge problem with orphans, but despite our excessive wealth we treat children as orphans—let the government feed them a stale breakfast, avoid values lessons in school because they’ve become politically charged, leave them to their smart devices and otherwise on their own to grow up. “Look me in the eye and tell the truth,” I heard a teacher say at one orphan care facility outside Port-au-Prince—a basic level of candor and care lacking in the day-to-day for many American schoolchildren.
Rampant gang warfare thrives in Port-au-Prince. Yet we have become accustomed to news that a child has carried a sawed-off shotgun into a school and killed a few people. We think little about double-digit youth unemployment, unconcerned about the long-term effects on a generation, believing we can tweak the minimum wage and somehow recalibrate.
In Haiti poor young men pee off the sides of trucks as they hitch rides to work. I saw it more than once. How barbaric, I thought. Yet returning here I was reminded we have rich men and women—in glittering get-ups under million-dollar lights—who disrobe at the Super Bowl and flip their middle finger at the masses. Messing with the halftime show is big business. And that sums up a lot.
Children of Men is a 2006 movie set in 2027, about 20 years after all the women in the world became infertile and there were no more children anywhere. “A hundred years from now there won’t be [anyone] to look at this,” says one lead character. “What keeps you going?”
“I just don’t think about it,” comes the reply from his brother. It’s what we do in a culture with just enough padding, enough comfort and distraction to hold the ruin at bay, even as the padding is wearing thin. In the movie a newscaster dials back to 2003, “a beautiful time when people refused to accept that the future was just around the corner.”
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or environmental doomsayer to realize it sounds at least as contemporary, plausible, as it does dystopian. Instead of choosing measurements to confirm a pleasant life—our GDP or our OK tax return or ample square footage to live in—I propose another measurement: light overcoming darkness. It’s a measurement that cuts from the heart outward. Can we truly see light overcoming darkness in our homes, on our streets, in our cities? When we can do that, we will say, “Who could possibly deserve this place?”