An Ordinary Solution to a Horrendous Problem


Last month I reflected on our calling in the midst of problems that seem beyond solution in Are We Always Called to Have a Solution? I concluded that solutions are “the product and the result of people faithfully loving in supernatural ways. Showing supernatural loves takes passion that is kept alive through constant exposure to the problems that cripple…the best solutions are borne out of constant loving exposure to those problems that seem beyond solution.” 

However I feel compelled to revisit this conclusion because I now realize that the challenge was incomplete. 

I was privileged to hear Paul Rusesabagina, the former General Manager at the Diplomat Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, speak recently about his experiences in the midst of atrocious human rights abuses.  Paul’s courage in saving more than 1,200 Rwandans during the 1994 genocide was popularized in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda. Sitting on the third row with nine of my students, we had a direct view both of Paul and his wife Tatiana.  In the 16 years that I have studied political science, I have never experienced a more moving account of one of the international events that has shaped the post-Cold War international system.  Though speaking to a distinctly secular audience, I was undone by the clear message of redemption conveyed in the talk. 

Paul conveyed his experiences as a father, husband, neighbor, and hotel general manager during the 19 days in which more than 800,000 Rwandans were violently slaughtered.  He framed the experience in terms of four lessons learned during the genocide, which he presents in detail in his autobiography An Ordinary Man.  Of the four lessons, two were particularly relevant to the theme of finding a solution in circumstances that seem beyond solution.  The first relevant lesson was this: “Words are important.  They can be the best and the worst weapons in a person’s arsenal.  When you use words, you are able to find negotiated solutions.”  Paul was able to save more than a thousand people through engaging with the enemy.  When he was handed a gun and told to shoot his neighbors who were “cockroach traitors,” he started to talk.  Not only did he talk, he served the enemy. Through serving them he distracted them, and through distracting them, he saved his neighbors’ lives. 

The second lesson was even more compelling than the first: “No one can be completely bad, nor completely good.  It is your duty to dig into a hard heart and find the soft part.  Deal with that part.”  One of the key’s to Paul’s success as a hero in the midst of tragedy was to treat his captors, to treat his enemies, as if he saw the goodness in hearts that seemed beyond redemption.  When I spoke of supernatural acts of love in my previous piece, I was speaking of loving the vulnerable and the weak.  I was not considering what it meant to show supernatural acts of love to the evil perpetrators of violence that are causing the vulnerability. I did not consider it because that type of love seems beyond even the most creative imagination. 

As I sat and watched this man convey how even the perpetuators of genocide had a soft part within their hard hearts, I realized that my account for finding solutions was incomplete.  So I want to share Paul Rusesabagina’s words as he answered a student question from the audience. 

The question went something like this: “How did you have the courage to protect all those people for so many days during the genocide, and how have you personally dealt with all the atrocities you witnessed during that month?  Paul answered with these words:

You do not really make the decision to protect people so long.  You define yourself within the situation, and you stand for what you believe.  You have to listen to your conscience.  There were moments when my conscience told me that if I did not do something, I would never be free from this experience.  I knew for certain I was going to be killed.  But let me tell you something friends, all of you have a mission on this earth.  And you will not go anywhere until that mission is over.  So I kept doing small things, every minute, every hour, every day, until the genocide was over.  I had to listen to my conscience.

We think of big moments of remarkable courage in the face of atrocity, and we wonder how we would respond in that situation. But the power of Paul Rusesabagina’s story was the message that big moments are nothing more than a string of smaller moments where you have defined yourself and stood up for what you believe.  You never know when the big moments are coming; moments that will define who you are and shape your future.  Moments when things change forever sneak up on us and take us by surprise.  When these moments happen, it is too late to contemplate what you should do.  Instead, you act in line with how you have defined yourself and what you believe.  

Bottom line, how you define yourself today in this moment, has important implications for how you will act in the face of adversity.  The way you work in a low-level position with few rewards has implications for the way you will work when you are given your dream job.  The compassion you show for a distant acquaintance or even an enemy who is struggling has implications for how you will respond when you are not given the opportunity to strategically choose the best course of action.  The way you live in the little moments shapes the way you live in the big moments.  We get to choose the way we act in small moments of every-day life, but we rarely get to choose how to respond in the big moments when everything that is true and right hangs in the balance.  Solutions to horrendous problems start in the ordinary every day choices you make about how to define yourself and live out what you believe.

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.