The orphanage sat at the end of the road in a sun-baked field that was speckled with garbage. Hundreds of black plastic bags were caught on the scraggly dead brush and they fluttered in the desert breeze like flags of war. The landscape reminded me of Iraq, which in a strange way made me feel comfortable. I liked the harsh beauty of the dry cliffs, the pale blue sky and the relentless sun. The orphanage was surrounded by a sturdy bamboo fence that had been painted a rainbow of pastel colors. The colors created the desired effect of looking hopeful in the face of the hash reality that surrounded them.
Inside the compound the bright paint scheme continued onto several simple wood buildings. The director showed me around the compound and introduced me to the staff and the children. The kids suffered from a range of diseases like Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, and schizophrenia. Many of them had multiple conditions and almost none of them could speak so they communicated with shrieks, grunts and smiles. They would never be anywhere near normal. They would never experience anything remotely like a regular life.
The director handed me a book that contained the children’s stories. What I found inside turned my stomach. The children had suffered some of the most horrific abuse imaginable. Many of them were the result of rape so their mothers resented and abused them. All came from families that were unable or unwilling to care for them. One girl was found naked, living in a chicken yard and she had pulled out chunks of her hair from stress. And that was the least disturbing part of her story. The idea that the kids were devil children or a curse from God was common. Some of the children were born with minor conditions but their families neglected and abused them until they were beyond repair.
For a few days I spent time with the kids painting the compound. The painting was really just busy work that gave the kids something constructive and challenging to do. It was messy and not very productive but they really enjoyed it. One day we took some of the kids to the pool of an American couple who lived a few miles outside of town. One girl was terrified of the water and refused to get in the first half hour, but once she got in she became calm and relaxed. The others were happy to get in right away.
As I watch the children I marvelled at how deformed they were both mentally and physically and yet how perfectly in tact their humanity was. The kids loved to joke and laugh. As I joked with them there was no fear that I was laughing too hard or too long or that I was not really getting the joke. The laughter I shared with them was the purest and most sublime I have ever experienced. It created a white-hot joy in my chest that vaporized residual anger and resentment that I had forgotten was there. Because they were absolutely free to be themselves, no, not free they were bound to be themselves, I was free to do the same.
As I watched one of the boys who was normally confined to a wheelchair experience pure ecstasy as he splashed the pool water I realized that despite their disabilities they had a greater capacity for joy than I will ever have. I remembered their stories and marvel that they did not hate and mistrust everyone. Instead many of them greeted me as if I was a long-lost friend with an honest hug. They had a greater capacity for forgiveness than I will ever have.
I have a herculean ability to stress and obsess about things. But I found it impossible to worry about things that were suddenly revealed to not be important in their company.
I can be a judgemental prick. I am constantly evaluating and measuring up other people. Sometimes this is necessary but I take it to a cynical extreme. As I looked at the kids with their twisted limbs and distorted faces, the only person I found to be seriously flawed was myself.