Watching the various daily news programs for me has a deep chilling effect on how I view the cruel cosmic joke called human civilization. At best most our civilized efforts and endeavors never stray far from that of a bunch of spoiled children left unattended on some playground fighting over toys and who controls the swing sets, slides, and water fountains. At worst human civilization can take on characteristics far closer to that of viruses spreading, conquering, and then leaving destruction in its wake.
With almost seven billion people on the planet, dwindling resources, entire ecosystems on the verge of collapse, and global climate conditions that I will optimistically just call degraded we still happily practice the same behaviors our hunter-gatherer ancestors did untold thousands of years ago. We still tenuously cling to ancient ethnic conflicts and hates even when their origins have been lost to history and have been relegated to that of myth and legend. Laws and constitutions, designed to curb abuses of power and to thwart those for whom the desire for power justifies all means, are regularly abandoned whenever they become inconvenient. Instead of judging a person on the content of his or her character we still classify those we do not know and fear into different groups based on skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and even language.
When I get away from overpowering glow of city lights to see the stars and have a chance to think my perceptions and attitudes change ever so slightly. I have to make a distinction between the animalistic behavior of Homo sapiens and its ability to organize, dominate, and control and the efforts of human civilized behavior to create, build, discover, and explore. Maybe even more importantly I have to make a distinction between the callous disregard the animal homo sapiens has for those outside his or her tribe, caste, nation, or race and that aspect of human civilized behavior called empathy that looks beyond the superficial.
Empathy is an extremely rare behavior, especially these days as we continue to writhe in our collective hates and prejudices seeing only the injustices inflected on our kith and kin and view those outside as alien and unclean. Exceptions exist, there are those who bravely see not the outsider and fear what that person might do but our common humanity. Such exceptions need to be recognized and applauded not just for personal acclaim for those exceptional people but to hold them up as an example that all of us can do better, or at least give a damn and try.
Please read the following article on Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife, Bilquis.
Abdul Sattar Edhi has personally washed tens of thousands of corpses that he has rescued from gutters, beneath bridges and from the sea. The 82-year-old Pakistani has devoted his life to the destitute of Karachi, burying the city's forgotten and giving fresh life to its abandoned newborns. His pioneering social work has drawn comparisons to Mother Teresa's.
His mission is synonymous with this sprawling port city, where rickshaws bearing veiled women, scooters spewing smoke and drivers pressing palms to horns all squeeze in the narrow streets through spaces as thin as a ray of hope.
Amid the chaos, in an aging building, is the room Edhi bought nearly 60 years ago to use as a dispensary. He arrived with the mass migration of Muslims from India six days after Pakistan's independence. Edhi was barely 20 when he began the work that would make him arguably the most respected figure in Pakistan.
"I saw people lying on the pavement," he recalls. "The flu had spread in Karachi, and there was no one to treat them. So I set up benches and got medical students to volunteer. I was penniless and begged for donations on the street. And people gave. I bought this 8-by-8 room to start my work."
The single room has grown to a three-story headquarters. Donations, mostly from ordinary Pakistanis, have already topped $36 million this year. The vast philanthropic network offers Karachi's poorest what could be called cradle-to-grave service.
His wife, Bilquis, runs one of the maternity wards in Karachi. She has a sunny disposition that contrasts with the suffering there. Just 40 minutes after delivery, one mother, grimacing in pain, gets up to leave.
"Most of the babies who are left in the cradle at our doorstep are girls," she adds. "Sometimes the babies are tossed in garbage heaps, gagged and wrapped in plastic bags. In one week, we can get as many as 11 dead babies."
The babies are brought to the Edhi morgue, where the acrid smell of embalming fills the air. Employees who are paid a small stipend load a corpse into an ambulance to be taken to the cemetery. It is a long slender body prepared for burial. It bears a number, but it bears no name. The Edhi Foundation buries bodies that cannot be identified.
The makeshift hearse snakes its way to the Edhi Foundation's cemetery on the outskirts of the city. Mohammad Saleem has been a driver for the Edhi ambulance service for 24 years. The service now operates throughout the country. Saleem recalls his first assignment.
"Mr. Edhi sent us to collect a dead body, and the stink was so unbearable I couldn't stand it. We all ran," Saleem says. "We came back with Mr. Edhi, who showed us how to pick up a dead body and transport it."
The two young men being laid to rest this day will be interred in a place as bleak as their lives likely were. The van bearing their bodies bumps along the potholed unpaved streets. Little boys rush to sneak a peak through the window, while babies sit like Buddhas in the endless debris.
There is not an area of social need that the Edhi Foundation has not touched, even raising money for the families displaced by the fighting in Swat Valley and pleading with judges to reform the prisons.
Karachi lawyer Tahera Hassan wanted a baby girl and approached the Edhi Foundation. Not long after, Bilquis Edhi took her utterly by surprise when she called to say that her baby was ready. But her husband wasn't. He was away.
"So I called him up," Hassan says, "and I was like, 'The baby's come!' He said, 'How will we know? How will you know it's the right one?' I said, 'Well, the baby's there. It's the right one! It's there.' So I went and got her."
That baby, Maya, is now 3 — and looking forward to having a baby sister from the Edhi Foundation. Mother and daughter visit Bilquis Edhi regularly so Maya will have a connection to the people Hassan calls "phenomenal."
Adbul Edhi, bearded and slight, calls himself a "pragmatic humanist." He also has been called a communist for his belief that the rich enslave the poor. In fact, Edhi says, poverty is spreading terrorism.