The Choice to Look Away


Post Author: Mariclair Partee Carlsen


tears in an eyeI do this thing in the mornings. I wake up and check the Rubycam in the nursery, and if Ruby is still asleep, I spend a few minutes in my bed on my phone, checking various email inboxes and my calendar for the day, usually scrolling through Facebook, before I go wake her up to start her day. I do this despite an admonishment years ago from my spiritual director that checking email first thing was the worst way to start a day.

This morning, as I read Facebook in the dawn’s light seeping through the bedroom shutters, I found myself face to face with the image of a tiny boy in Aleppo, covered in grime and dust, staring starkly back at me. He had been pulled seconds before from the ruins of a bomb blast and deposited in an orange safety chair in the back of an ambulance. It was a video, and so I watched as this child—maybe six months older than my own—in literal shell shock, sat slack in the chair, looked around a bit, rubbed absently at his forehead and hair, stared blankly at the hand that came back covered in blood, and then returned his eyes to the camera peering back at him. He was completely alone. I imagined his view in the back of this ambulance: of a stranger with a camera pointed at him, God only knows what raging in the background.

I had to turn it off. I’m not proud of that. I remember being told that once you have children, it changes the way you experience stories of children being mistreated or hurt or ill, because you can’t separate the hypothetical child from your own. Maybe that’s true. 

I went and filled the bathtub with warm water, then added a little baby wash to make bubbles, trying to force the image of the little boy’s grey, dirt-caked body out of my mind. Why was he all alone? How could the person behind the camera not have gone to him, held him, comforted him? How cold and heartless was it to continue filming as his little mind tried to come to terms with this new reality, as he was sitting so calmly and quietly, staring and blinking from the middle of horror. There was no time for holding yet, my brain explained. Everyone was busy rescuing others from the wreckage. His mother and father were probably still there, under beams and concrete and twisted pieces of rebar. Someone would come back for him soon. This video might be months old, I told myself. Regardless, there was nothing I could do now, from my bathroom in Philadelphia.

I went to Ruby’s crib and sang the church camp song I use to stir her when she doesn’t want to wake up quite yet, but the clock is ticking on school drop-off and leaving for the office. Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, people of the world. I took off her onesie and diaper, put her into the tub, and started to wash her little arms and back with a cloth, weeping the whole time, as I pictured the dust and the dirt and the blood streaking off into the water, swathes of clean skin emerging with each swipe, as a tiny little person tried to make sense of his broken and screaming world.

I still can’t watch the rest of the video. I’ve tried a couple of times. Like the images last fall of the tiny drowned body of a Syrian toddler, swept out of an overcrowded, flimsy escape boat, washed up on a Turkish beach, I don’t expect that I will be able to avoid it for long. My heart vacillates between wanting to condemn the cameraman for not doing what I physically can’t—putting the camera down, sweeping the tiny limbs into my arms, and surrounding them with the safety of my body—and understanding why maybe this moment needed to be documented, this story needed to be told, because of how many others it could potentially help, how many other mothers’ and fathers’ hearts could be convicted. I lifted Ruby out of the bath and wrapped her in the soft folds of a towel, taking a moment to smile at her in the mirror so she could laugh at the image of a tiny, wet Ruby in Mama’s arms laughing back at her.

I don’t have any neat way to tie this up. No sentimental encouragement to make us all feel better. No bible verses to convict and inspire right now. That will come. But right now the feelings of helplessness that arise from the knowledge of what is happening in the world can make me wish, perversely, for an end to our global connectedness. They can make me want to hide my family deep under protective layers of ignorance, to keep us safe by not exposing us to reality, because changing that reality seems so impossible.

I know someone will quickly remind me that in God all things are possible. Faith will come. Action will come. But for now, for this morning, for some reason I can’t quite articulate, it’s important for me to sit in this place of helplessness and rage and grief in my comfortable world. Penance, perhaps, for having the choice to look away.


Mariclair Partee Carlsen serves as the rector of St. Mary's, Hamilton Village, and the Episcopal Chaplain to the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and child. A past editor and board member of TYCWP, she is thankful for the many voices shared over the years in Fidelia's Sisters.


Image by: Alena Navarro-Whyte
Used with permission
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