Tag Archives: Christmas

Heavenly Rest:  The UN Pays a Holiday Health Visit, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Dec


We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.  Kurt Vonnegut

Surgeons can cut out everything except cause.  Herbert M. Shelton

Extreme violence has a way of preventing us from seeing the interests it serves.  Naomi Klein

A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ. John Steinbeck

If you would live long, open your heart.  Bulgarian saying

On the Sunday before Christmas I am staring at my worn and trusted crèche scene, a holy family “guarded” in this instance by replicas of cats and hippos and camels as well as by the more traditional barn animals.  For me, this scene represents a brief respite in a season that seems to have followed our cultures off a cliff of sorts – trading in the expectation of “heavenly rest” for the expectation that what “really matters” will magically appear at our front door or under a decorated tree.

Except that magic is at a premium.  I walked for over a mile yesterday down Broadway between rendezvous with good friends, past the high-end stores north of Canal Street before turning east towards the vegetable markets that line several of the streets of Chinatown.  The streets were packed.  The winds were howling. The car horns were blaring.  Children were in the midst of emotional meltdowns. The looks on the faces of most of the people I passed stretched beyond the usual wary impatience that characterizes so many in this city so much of the time.  This was stress of a different order, or so it seemed, the stress that accompanies the determination to make Christmas “matter” for someone at least, to make one last push through the crowded streets, through the racks of clothes and toy bins, through the long check-out lines, to satisfy an opaque longing that has everything to do with advertisers and virtually nothing to do with the message in the manger.

People in this city really do seem unhappy much of the time –and I would often add myself to their numbers– but especially so in this “joyous holiday season.”  It is though we have lifted a bandage covering the wounds of the year only to discover that the infection is worse than we imagined, that we are less healthy in mind, body and spirit than we ourselves, and our bartenders, therapists, pharmacists and yoga teachers, have allowed us to believe.

One verse of a well-known Christmas Carol ends with “sleep in heavenly peace.”  For too many of us, sleep in any form has become a virtual luxury, a deficit that directly and at times severely impacts the quality of our lives including the depth of our compassionate and active engagement with the world.  Our stressful societies have created for us a kind of double-whammy – distractions by day and restlessness by night.  We have become addicted to bombardment from outside ourselves and increasingly oblivious to the toll this is taking on our inner resources.

Regardless of our political affiliations or religious dispositions, we know that things are not right.  Too many of us work too hard to sustain lives that yield too few joys.  Too many of us cover our sorrows and anxieties with substances and diversions that are about as effective as painting a bathtub with watercolor. We fret about the “state of the world,” even lament the blood that occasionally appears on our collective hands, but soldier on as though the contents of the next smiley Amazon Box will heal what ails us, will restore our serially damaged relationship between longing and gratitude.

Institutions such as the United Nations have actually begun to take health issues a bit more seriously.   Here in New York, the UN has done important policy work on preparing for pandemic outbreaks as well as identifying remedial options for addressing the “non-communicable diseases” and even road hazards that continue to ravage communities and shorten life-spans.   Even the Security Council has gotten in on this act.   Just this past Friday, as one of its final contributions as an elected Council member, Sweden convened an excellent Arria Formula discussion focused on the most immediate implications of health for peace and security – issues of access to medical care in conflict zones as well as the growing danger to medical practitioners operating in such zones, persons and facilities increasingly targeted by state forces and non-state armed groups in fundamental violation of international law.

These are matters crucial to any and all efforts to preserve and promote the peace.  It’s bad enough that we aren’t more successful in preventing conflicts, in part through a clearer examination of the “interests they serve,” but to actively prevent persons already-devastated by armed violence from receiving the modicum of care available to them in conflict zones is beyond reprehensible.  Wars have rules, we are told, most of which are related to the treatment of non-combatants, but these rules are constantly in various states of violation.  As Swedish Ambassador Skoog put it, the gaps between “what is said and what is done” on health care access and the safety of health care workers continue to be large.  In this instance as in others, our “humane ideas” must come attached to more humane practices and, as France noted during the session, greater accountability for perpetrators of abuses.

Fulfilling this “sacred responsibility” to conflict-related casualties requires, as Peru’s Ambassador noted, a “homogenous approach to protection” with uniform standards that are both upheld and guaranteed by the Security Council and other UN member states.   Such guarantees are frustratingly hard to come by in this current phase of human existence.  As we were reminded by a panelist from South Sudan, the degree of difficult in field surgery is sent through the roof once the bombs resume falling.  Surgeons, it appears, “can cut out everything except the cause.”

We must, as many speakers noted, be more attentive to the needs and resources of those who make such sacrifices to bind together those who have been maimed by violence in its many facets.  But genuine healing is even more comprehensive than the bombs we prevent, the destruction averted, the injuries avoided, even by eliminating the trauma that impacts confidence in life, including the confidence to seek out treatment.  It is also a function of getting our institutions right, of making certain that we are doing what we can to optimize our performance in the world, in part by insisting on more healthfully engaged colleagues. The UN itself still has things to learn in this regard.

We must take our collective health more seriously, in all its dimensions.  Our “sad souls” and the things we do to cover that sadness are collectively doing us in, making us more “cranky” than we need to be, isolating us socially and spiritually, but also shutting down our practical empathy for others – the needy in our immediate midst, the migrants at our borders, the victims of our thoughtless policy choices, those whose bodies have been mangled and psyches traumatized courtesy of our overly politicized and militarized international engagements.  We don’t need to be this way; we don’t need to bury our own wounds while simultaneously inflicting wounds on others.  Whatever you understand “human nature” to be, this isn’t an example.  This isn’t inevitable.

The call to the deeper health advocated here is not satisfied by going to the gym or swallowing our meds.  And it is not satisfied through pious calls to “take care of ourselves,” as though most of us actually know what that means. The health we would do well to seek instead, that indeed this season calls for, is a collective and comprehensive endeavor – a commitment to maintain and share in what Wendell Berry once called “the feast of creation,” a feast fully open for a time only to the few while impeded for the many by the artifacts of our often thoughtless predation.

Whether particularly religious or not, I wish each of you a portion of “heavenly rest” this season, a time of uninterrupted sleep, inspirational dreams, successful self-reflection and ultimately a renewed commitment to the health and well-being of others.  Rest assured that we will all sleep more soundly in a world of greater hospitality for refugees, an end to threats against health and humanitarian workers, the cessation of bombing raids and all indiscriminate killing –especially in the places where children live and learn –and far fewer, less intrusive, external distractions of all kinds.

May this soon come to pass

Away in a Manger:  The UN Sends a Christmas Message to the Displaced, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec

It’s Christmas Eve morning and on a table near my computer is a dusty wooden crèche, a replicated space apparently large enough to hold a holy family, a couple of onlookers, a barn animal or two and some early-arriving dignitaries.  The crèche is guarded by a host of other creatures courtesy of my many trips abroad – a camel, a hippo and a variety of cats – lots of cats.  Atop the crèche is a cross tied together with palms from the previous Lenten Season – a reminder of where this particular birth, indeed all of our births are ultimately headed.

In part because we are so desperate for vindication of our optimisms, we have somehow managed to sentimentalize the manger event.  Oh sure it must have been cold.   And it really isn’t anyone’s fault that there was no room at the Inn.  And the travel to Bethlehem couldn’t have been THAT treacherous.  And the manger doesn’t appear to be THAT uncomfortable.

On an on it goes, trivializing the scene, apply the “Hollywood gloss” to the lives of persons who were in essence displaced.   Persons with few tangible assets.   Riding a donkey across treacherous pathways while coping with the uncertainties of an immanent birth event.   Fleeing violence and rumors of violence for a mostly uncertain future. Showing up at an Inn with a keeper who might well have had every reason to believe that a cleaner, higher class of folks would soon arrive to purchase what were probable (still) empty beds, folks ready to eat and drink without bringing with them the drama and danger that so often accompanied birth in those times.

The manger is not a film set, nor should it constitute an occasion to celebrate the holy baby while ignoring the unholy circumstances.  This was hard, harder than most everyone who will bother to read this missive will have ever experienced in their lives.

There are millions of people this very day who also find themselves on the treacherous move – fleeing conflict they had no role in starting, walking many miles without being able to quench their thirst or reassure their children, bearing the load of the most essential provisions while, in some instances, carrying within them the multiple “weights” of a new life.

For some, the actual manger from this Christmas season would be a relief:  a donkey to ride when feet are weary, some hay to provide minimal comfort while waiting along hostile borders, the hope that the same Innkeeper who provided the manger space might also show some mercy and provide nourishment for the new mother.

For many of the millions of displaced who are today on the move, such mercy is hard to come by.  Despite the misery of their often torturous journeys, they encounter closed and closely guarded borders, hostile governments and their electorates, and sometimes very cold hearts.

Too many of us nowadays wouldn’t let the displaced get close enough to knock on our doors let alone to direct them to a relatively comfortable and safe landing.

For all its warts, the UN is taking the needs of the displaced seriously.   The UN has not always done enough to stop the bombing or alleviate the poverty and drought that drive so much global displacement, but neither has it minimized the immense physical suffering and psychological trauma that displacement occasions.  In resolution after resolution, the UN has urgently highlighted the multiple burdens of displacement – from physical deprivation and hostile countries of destination to increased vulnerabilities to criminal elements, including and especially from traffickers.

One example of this concern was this week in a (much too small) UN conference room within which the UN Office for Drugs and Crimes’ 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons was launched.  The event was sponsored by France and included UNODC’s director Yuri Fedotov and the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad.  It also included many states affirming commitments made in aforementioned resolutions and through the New York Declaration, a seminal document that outlines challenges and obligations towards the displaced by both states and diverse, additional stakeholders.

There were many insights from this event, one of which is that states are being more thoughtful about the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons, especially to traffickers — those soliciting victims for forced prostitution, for child labor, even for child soldiers.  It was Mexico that most clearly acknowledged the preponderance of “push and pull” factors that promote displacement noting that, for all the attention that the displaced now rightly receive, both raw numbers and vulnerabilities continue to rise.  Such discouraging data, as noted by UNODC director Fedotov, must inspire us to more thoughtful, comprehensive commitments to the victims of displacement, including as noted by Iraq, commitments to help those seeking to return to their homes to do so.

One of the longer-term lessons of Christmas for me has been that in settings such as the manger-turned–delivery-room — settings of uncertainty and discomfort, settings of weariness and fear — a child can be born bearing the capacity to literally change the world.

On this Christmas, along many militarized borders, in many makeshift refugee camps, on many cramped crafts that are anything but sea-worthy, there are children about to leave the womb, children who also bear the capacity to make change and bring hope in our world.  Given the violent, melting state of our planet and the unbridled confusion and anger of so many of its current inhabitants, we would be foolish and grossly negligent to do anything other than welcome and nurture their promise.