Beginning Lent, by way of Hotel Rwanda

Today it feels likeLent began a few days early.

Monica and I walked over to Coolidge Corner just around midday to catch the 1:30 showing of “Hotel Rwanda.” It was a gorgeous, spring-like day, with 50 degree temperatures helping the city shed a few layers of snow, dissolving the improvised landscape of snowbanks and pathways into an even less organized mire of puddles and slush. As we navigated the sidewalk along Harvard Avenue, we talked about Monica’s recent trip to Uganda and her other trips to Africa in the past. But we still weren’t really prepared for where the movie would take us, into one man’s experience of the Rwandan genocide. It was a harrowing experience—the most emotionally difficult movie I’ve seen—and we couldn’t help but leave the theater in a very different place than when we entered.

It was hard to know what to do for the rest of the day after a movie like that. It’s the kind of experience that creates an opening inside me for a moment, a space in which I am awake and attentive to the needs of the world, a space in which I want to be a different person and respond in a significant way. It’s an opening in which priorities are clear and I can tell what’s valuable and what isn’t.

And I knew the opening wouldn’t last long. As I walked around Trader Joe’s, absent-mindedly putting Cage-Free eggs, pancake mix, and dish soap in my basket, I could feel the inner space already beginning to close as my own concerns and desires and distractions began to crowd in. I tried to keep prying it open as we walked back up Harvard Ave, and our conversation about Africa became a means of keeping the sense of awareness from fogging over too quickly.

I think that’s all I can do in these situations. This inner space won’t last forever, and I won’t change overnight. My life as a graduate student will continue for now. I will keep sitting in front of the computer, designing web sites, commenting on student essays. I won’t immediately go to Africa and work to stop the genocide in Darfur. But I have to hope that when an experience like this stretches my insides open to include a bit more of the world’s pain, that it won’t return to exactly the same shape it was before. There’s nothing I can do to prevent myself from closing down; I’m just not strong enough or compassionate enough to remain so deeply aware of poverty and injustice as something more than an abstraction.

But I need to find a few simple things to do in response, actions that will keep the inner space from closing entirely, wedges that hopefully that will make it easier to create openings in the future.

It seems like this is what Lent is for. Praying for openings and then paying attention. Finding small ways to keep them from closing all the way when they appear. Then starting over again.