MY SISTFR ALISON is in Africa now. About two months ago she and other Peuce Corps volunteers left their training camp in Frogmore, South Carolina, for Mauntania, a barrenarid nation the size of Alaska, just south of Morocco. I am in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is 3 a.m. An autumn chill has penetrated the walls and filled my room, so i must wear a jacket as I type, My sister is so faraway, on the other side of the world, that I imagine is afternoon there right now, I'm not sure what season it is in Mauritania, but I don't think that matters: it is always very hot. So while I am fighting off sleep and bundling against the cold, she is probably aching and sweating in temperatures of well over 100 degrees.
In high school Alison was a champion figure skater. In Mauritania there is no ice. In fact, there is very little but sand, She was told by the people who assigned her to that country that 70 percent of Mauritania bound volunteers quit in their first year. The natives are starving, disease runs rampant, and water is searce. Foliage in Mauritania is gradually disappearing under sand dunes, which are creeping across the country at a rate of several thousand feof each year. It seems strange to me that our own New England sun, which turns the fall sky ice blue, sparkles off the orange and yellow leaves, and throws just enough warmth into the air against the oncoming winter for Saturday football game, is the same sun that thousands of miles away pounds relentlessly upon that African nation day after day driving back the lakes and the greenery, soaking up the brackish pools and wells, beckoning the endless tide of sand that rolls on over the land.
Since my sister's departure for Africa, I have begun to re-evaluate my attitudes concerning one's responsibilities toward his fellow human beings. I consider myself a kind person I don't enjoy hurting others, am usually generous with what I own and try to make those around me happy, I abide by most laws and I rarely tell lies. But as for any sort of innate responsibility to sacrifies my own comfort for others. I have often senfled at the notion. What is it that Lawe my fellow man? I have resisted the idea that I should feel guilty for all the things that make my life happier than the lives of a lot of people I am thankful for what I have, that is true. Thankful that I grew up in a nice home in a nice town, with parents who never beat me and are still happily married after more than 25 years I am not religious, so I don't know whom to be thankful to but I am thankful nonetheless.
But what dictates that I should spend my life, or any part of it, sacrificing myself for people I don't know who live in places I've never seen? If I spend my life being as happy as I can be making those around me happy, then am I not heading a worthwhile life? Of course this is a pleasant theory to have much more, so than a theory that would confine me to a life of serving others. Yet for a long time I found solace in this idea, and it buffered me when driving through Roxbury or Dorehester or seeing an ad for GARE on TV, I would feel little twinges of guilty conscience that perhaps there was some thing I could do to help even great disparities that exist in our society.
BUT NOW I am not so sure. Before my sister left, I asked her why she felt it was so important to go. She had everything that I did: a good home, a college education. Why I asked her, didn't she go on to law school as she originally planned? She said something about getting away from, "the land of plenty" for a while. She said she didn't think Newton--our home town--was the "real world," I told her--and I still believe this--that self-deprecating feelings toward one's home, simply because it is comfortable, are pointless. There is nothing more "real" about places where infants are starving and everybody is sick, only more tragic I don't know exactly why she left. She must be some kind of pure altruist. She is not religious and I don't think she is worried about getting into heaven.
I guess she felt there was something drawing her in, calling her to help others. I began to wonder if there was something lacking in my personality, that I did not feel the sense of urgency to shove off for a foreign land. Perhaps my theory that all I needed to do was be happy was simply my way of neglecting some sort of larger responsibility. Here my sister is, on one side of the world, toiling away under the sun, risking her health, getting paid about $2000 a year with nowhere to spend the little money she makes. And here i am, pounding away at the keyboard, finishing up another paper in an endless stream of paper so that one day I can graduate and get a good job. One of us must be wrong. Either she is wrong, in her desperate, beautiful way, trying to save people who will only die, saving people who will have kids that will die, irrigating sandy fields with bad water, beating her head against a brick wall of ignoring the please of those less fortunate than myself.
If she is wrong, then she is suffering a couple of worthless years in a sort of hell on Earth. If I am wrong, then maybe I'm damned. Yet perhaps we can both be right. She went into the Peace Corps because she felt she had to, or because she felt it would give her a sense of satisfaction that would supercede the temporary pains and miseries. I do not feel that urgency. I will continue to be nice to people, and help others when I can, but I don't think I'll ever be the kind of altruist my sister is Maybe there's room for both of us I hope so.
The light is now coming up in Cambridge, and by my calculations that means the sun is just going down in Mauritania. I wonder if she is thinking about home. It must seem very far away. I wonder if it seems strange to her as she lies in her mud hut in some little village as the sun finally settles, that somewhere thousands of miles across the sand and the ocean. New England is just waking up, and life goes on as usual
This essay was originally submitted for General Education 105. "The Literature of Social Reflection."