Wants and Needs

This holiday season, my whole perspective has changed.

I’d like to think I’ve been nice this year, but Santa won’t be bringing me the top item on my Christmas list anyway. Despite months of hoping and praying, I’m not getting my longed-for new job in time for the New Year. That disappointment would have been crushing a few months ago, when I was wailing that I desperately needed a new job. But now I have a new understanding of what “need” really means.

This fall I was lucky enough to dramaturg the world premiere of a new play, Listen, by Meg Schadl. The play follows Ruby, a beautiful young ad exec in NYC, as her conscience begins to prickle about her two primary goals in life: finding a rich husband and collecting designer clothes. She’s visited by manifestations of homelessness, child prostitution, and the genocide in Darfur — and subsequently finds herself doing frantic research into issues like clean water, AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and honor killings in Iraq.

When I first read Listen, I was struck by how deeply it resonated with me. Think of it as A Christmas Carol for the 21st century woman. Ruby is self-absorbed and flighty, but also profoundly human. She believes — like I always had, without really thinking about it — that if we just work hard, if we are good people, then we deserve good things. We have earned our rights to love, happiness, and a Gucci bag. Isn’t that the American dream?

As the production dramaturg, my responsibility was to provide the playwright and the director with detailed research into these social issues. It was an emotionally exhausting process. I spent hours every day hunched over my computer, leapfrogging from one link to another, often in tears.

One of the first subjects I researched was the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s one of the most-hyped celebrity causes (thanks, Bono!), but I didn’t understand the scope until I began to really examine the numbers. I was completely staggered to learn that 2.1 million children under the age of 15 are HIV-positive. Most of them get the virus from their mothers before they’re born — which is largely preventable, but incredibly only 9 percent of infected pregnant women in developing countries receive the anti-retroviral medication necessary to prevent their disease from being passed on to their unborn children. And only 12 percent of those HIV-positive children have access to ARVs — without which, half of them will never have a chance to walk or talk. They’ll be dead by age 2. I saw countless pictures of frail babies with sad doe eyes clinging to their mothers. I cried, knowing that many of them will never have a chance to grow up.

I learned that one out of every five people on earth do not have clean water. As a direct result, 5,000 children die every day from diarrhea. The children who do survive are often ill and malnourished. Instead of attending school, many girls in these developing countries must make miles-long journeys every day to collect their family’s drinking water—often from muddy pools where animals drink and defecate. I stared, aghast, at pictures of dirty water the same color as my tall skim no-whip peppermint mocha from Starbucks. I could not imagine being thirsty enough to drink from that pool, but it’s a fact of life for millions of people.

So is the lack of a toilet. Two out of every five people in the world lack basic sanitation. It’s another reason so many girls aren’t being educated; once they start menstruating, it’s too embarrassing to go to a school that lacks toilets, where they must squat in a yard to relieve themselves.

I was horrified by the reminder that even in the 21st century, women are still second-class citizens in many areas of the world. The rights I take for granted are utterly dispensed with in places where primitive vigilante “justice” goes unpunished or is outright sanctioned by the government. In Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, women are brutally murdered — stabbed, stoned, and burned to death — after bringing “dishonor” onto their families. Their so-called crimes? Leaving abusive marriages, dating without their fathers’ consent, or even being victims of rape. I read long interviews with veiled Pakistani women who spoke of being hunted by their own fathers or brothers for following their hearts and refusing to live according to an antiquated code of conduct they no longer believe in.

But that doesn’t happen here, I thought, grasping my privileged American identity like a life rope — until I read that in the United States, 1,400 women are murdered by husbands or boyfriends every year. That’s approximately four a day.

The heartbreaking interviews and statistics that I read over those two weeks have forever altered my notions of what “need” means. I may not have a new job for Christmas, but I do have a new, healthier perspective on my life. I am so blessed — not least because the chance to work on this show reminded me that theatre can create positive change in the world by raising people’s consciousness. It certainly raised mine.

I’m reading more than the headlines of the international news now. Playing Free Rice lets me contribute to the fight against world hunger even while I’m procrastinating. Also, I’ve decided on a charity I feel strongly about — Women for Women International — and am sponsoring a “sister” from Bosnia.

For my grandmother’s Christmas present, I made a $35 donation in her name to WorldVision, which will provide an orphan in Africa with a year’s worth of schooling. Seems like a great gift for the orphan — and for a woman who has all the material goods she could need but has always been a passionate advocate for literacy.

It’s been said many times, many ways … but this is the season of giving. What does that mean for you?

Article © 2007 by Jessica Emanuel