Dèyè mòn gen mòn.
Beyond mountains there are mountains.
…And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying…
T.S. ELIOT, “THE DRY SALVAGES”
Mountains Beyond Mountains is Tracy Kidder’s account of Dr. Paul Farmer’s mission. Peregrine and I spent the last month reading it together. I don’t know that a book has ever impacted me as much.
Farmer has a way of understanding our relationship with other people, and our relationship with God, that challenges the core of everything we do in this world. I don’t agree with Farmer in everything – in fact on many points we differ. And that is what shook. Because it’s been a long time since I read someone who challenged me so much. Kidder, who was already a Pulitzer Prize winner when he met Farmer, found himself challenged as well.
In the opening chapter, Kidder tells of being embedded in a small group of American soldiers stationed in Haiti. His accidental introduction to Doktè Paul was when he witnessed a pointed discussion between Farmer and the Army captain. He came away impressed with Farmer’s understanding of the country. On the flight out Kidder had another chance meeting and began to get to know him personally. It made him want to learn more…but there was tension.
I looked for him after the plane landed. We talked some more in a coffee shop, and I nearly missed my connecting flight. A few weeks later, I took him to dinner in Boston, hoping he could help make sense of what I was trying to write about Haiti, which he seemed glad to do. He clarified some of the history for me but left me wondering about him. He had described himself as a “poor people’s doctor,” but he didn’t quite fit my preconception of such a person. He clearly liked the fancy restaurant, the heavy cloth napkins, the good bottle of wine. What struck me that evening was how happy he seemed with his life. Obviously, a young man with his advantages could have been doing good works as a doctor while commuting between Boston and a pleasant suburb—not between a room in what I imagined to be a grubby church rectory and the wasteland of central Haiti. The way he talked, it seemed he actually enjoyed living among Haitian peasant farmers. At one point, speaking about medicine, he said, “I don’t know why everybody isn’t excited by it.” He smiled at me, and his face turned bright, not red so much as glowing, a luminescent smile. It affected me quite strongly, like a welcome gladly given, one you didn’t have to earn.
But after our dinner I drifted out of touch with him, mainly, I now think, because he also disturbed me. Writing my article about Haiti, I came to share the pessimism of the soldiers I’d stayed with. “I think we should have left Haiti to itself,” one of Captain Carroll’s men had said to me. “Does it really matter who’s in power? They’re still gonna have the rich and the poor and no one in between. I don’t know what we hope to accomplish. We’re still going to have a shitload of Haitians in boats wanting to go to America. But, I guess it’s best not even to try and figure it out.” The soldiers had come to Haiti and lifted a terror and restored a government, and then they’d left and the country was just about as poor and broken-down as when they’d arrived. They had done their best, I thought. They were worldly and tough. They wouldn’t cry about things beyond their control.
I felt as though, in Farmer, I’d been offered another way of thinking about a place like Haiti. But his way would be hard to share, because it implied such an extreme definition of a term like “doing one’s best.”
The world is full of miserable places. One way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money. Over the next five years, I mailed some small sums to the charity that supported Farmer’s hospital in Haiti. He sent back handwritten thank-you notes on each occasion.”
Mountains Beyond Mountains is one of those “everyone should read this” books. Whether you accept Dr. Paul’s theory of the world of not, whether or not you feel the same duty to Jesus’s gospel message and how it governs how we relate to the poor, the questions he poses are questions that must be asked. We all live in a world where Haitians are dying for the worst reasons. What can we do about that?
note – photographs taken by U.S. Military personnel on official duty enter into the public domain and can be used however one wishes. Which means that if someone takes a beautiful photo of the Haitian mountains and then ruins it with an American military helicopter in the middle of the scene, you can clip that little murder bird right out of the shot.