Today was similar to drinking a few cups of Nyquil and washing it down with Swedish fish. (Just to clarify the analogy for those with differing taste buds: Nyquil = the worst —- Swedish Fish = the best).
At this moment, after spending most of the day in tears, I feel so exhaustingly drained of emotion, yet simultaneously so invigorated and certain of myself, in a boggling way.
So to preface the day, for those who are still unclear on what it is that Ashoka does, let me summarize: As our CEO Bill Drayton says, you can give a man to fish and he’ll have a meal. You can teach a man to fish, and he may never go hungry. But social entrepreneurs are not content until they have revolutionized the fishing industry. The heart of Ashoka is the network of Fellows that we elect. Our Fellows represent leading social entrepreneurs in their fields, people who are not only addressing certain problems in the world, but are actively and creatively pursuing ways to change the system in a way that roots out the issue’s source and creates an effective, sustainable change.
Since I work in the D.C. office, most of my job involves reading and writing about future fellows and the work they are doing, which is wonderful because it gives me a small window into others’ motivations for change the ways they pursue that chase. However, I think today I really felt the essence of Ashoka as deeply and fully as I think is possible (at least I hope so, for my emotional sake.)
We had a prospective candidate visit today to speak to me and another Ashoka colleague about his life and current work, which involves the problem of urban violence. However, before he began looking at violence as a systemic problem, he spent over a decade working throughout Africa and across other continents as a highly specialized doctor attempting to eradicate infectious diseases. He was at the top of his class – top of the world – a doctor with the potential to make a 3924803498520092304 figure-salary (I exaggerate for effect) and with the inflating reputation as one of the most skilled and prominent professionals in his field. Nevertheless, without any funding or friends, he left the United States and worked in one of the most desperate and horror-filled countries on the African continent. Because of his dedication to his work and the people he touched, his marriage fell apart, he saw the absolute worst of humanity, submitted himself to, well, hell. And by hell I mean hell. Perhaps you have reached to those depths at some point in your life, perhaps you have not. This particular individual has in a very profound way.
Listening to his journey invoked within me the familiar feeling that swells regularly depending on my mood and situation. Today I felt as though it almost burst. As he went on about his struggles and his achievements in regions of the world that are absolutely desperate for something, anything, thing, I felt that irrepressible being within me rear its not-so-ugly head, that being that makes me certain of where I should be and what I should be doing.
I feel so called, so called, to go where people need help the most, where people need humanity the most.
Specifically, I feel called to those African countries and regions that, as the candidate I spoke with today described, live in a different time. Not a different place, but a different time. They have been forgotten, left behind, abandoned. And why? We’ll get back to this.
I listened to him talk about how difficult his work was, the hardships he endured abroad, the relationships he lost along the way. So I asked him,
Did you do the right thing?
He looked at me, and all of a sudden he was changed. He began to cry, and something appeared in his eyes that I have never witnessed before in my life. It was something that reduced me not only to tears for the rest of the day, but to a deep inner conflict which I imagine will continue throughout the next few years, if not the rest of my life. I saw in his eyes, suddenly, this reflection of pain, of desperation, longing, of the horrors he had witnessed and the death that had surrounded his soul. I cannot articulate in any translatable way what this moment looked or felt like, I apologize. But for the three us in the room it was an incredibly powerful moment, and one that I am so so thankful for.
With these weary eyes, he could not give me an answer. He knew I was asking that question for myself, for my own life. And that was an answer he could not have. He did relate, though, how insurmountably difficult his experiences had been, how scared he had felt at times, how many tears he had shed, how much of himself he had lost, and
how many lives he had saved.
In a life like this, he said,
you will die many times. You will be born many times over, but the birth canal will be very painful. Very painful.
Despite the tears and the eyes and the tales of past, what scared me the most was this moment with this candidate reinforced to an new level, my own resolve and need —– need —— to do this. To save lives that few others are willing to save. To go against all the norms and expectations. This is scary stuff. He was looking into my eyes and speaking into me, literally; I pictured in my heart and mind myself in his memory, and that was powerful. Really really powerful.
What am I supposed to do? I listen to someone who as bluntly and clearly as possible tells me how awful and difficult and life-changing/ending those experiences were, yet at the same time impresses upon me the fact that
it was indeed the right thing do.
This is the troubling thing about how I feel. There is nothing I can do about that not-so-ugly being rearing up within. If you have a calling to something, then you will know. I feel powerless to it because I honestly truly will not be able to rest until I have wrestled that creature face-to-face, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul. That’s it.
Today was an important day for me, because I think I finally understood in many ways the depth of the sacrifice that I am preparing to make, both emotionally and psychologically, as well as in regards to my family, friends and connections. But the point is that I have to do it. I have to do it in Africa. I just have to.
It’s not an obsession or a phase. It is something that is as much a part of my soul and my being as the blood that streams through my veins. I cannot be dissuaded or stopped because I have no more control than anyone else.
I cannot exist here in this world, free and happy and rich with life, when another world exists, another time exists, that is the opposite. Our parents tell us to eat our broccoli, finish our dinner, because there are “starving children in Africa.” Yes, but what does that really mean?
It means that we have created a society in which we don’t have to fundamentally examine that “other world.” By momentarily acknowledging starving children and finishing our meals, we excuse ourselves from any responsibility. Those children, that other world does not exist in our own, and they do not exist as true human beings in our minds, perhaps in mythical form, but not in reality. In his preface to “The Wretched of the Earth,” Sartre writes how we have become men at others’ expense. He says how “[our] passiveness serves no other purpose but to put [us] on the side of the oppressors.” sAt Newseum this past weekend in Washington D.C., I spend a good amount of time in the Pulitzer Prize photography exhibit, which included some deeply moving and strenuously heavy images. For example, an image of a crouching child, a skeleton of a child, and a vulture in the background, just waiting for this child to die. Think about how many people look at that photograph every day, are moved by it, and then move on. That image is not real to us. It means nothing. It resonates to the senses, but where else?
As a good friend pointed out to me tonight, one of the most profound things he has taken from his few years here in the United States is that (and I hope he won’t mind me repeating this), all people are exactly the same. There is nothing that distinguishes anybody from anybody else, except a particular visage or habit. And it’s true. We are all exactly EXACTLY the same. There is nothing inferior about anyone else.
The candidate today said, and this is reflected clearly in his work, is there are not good people and bad people, only good behaviors and bad behaviors. As a doctor, he does not distinguish people as good or bad when he treats them, there are only people. There is nothing fundamentally more significant or superior about anybody on this earth. We are all the same.
So why do we forget? Why do we create myths and abandon reality? Why do we eat in the name of a starving other? What is the next step? If the world really believed everyone was exactly the same, there would be no starvation, no violence, no hatred. Because that starving child in Africa we mentioned at the dinner table, well he would be your brother. That factory worker in Singapore, she’s your mother. But we don’t think like that. Not now. Maybe someday.
“And the day when our human race has full matured, it will not define itself as the sum of the inhabitatnts of the globe, but as the infinite unity of their reciprocities.” – Sartre.
Today I was affirmed in a painful, tearful, and yet sweet way. I know what my next step is and I welcome it with steady anticipation. I don’t expect approval or excitement from many who love me, nor do I blame them. But perhaps one day I will be able to articulate this in a way that they can understand it, and in that way, can ride some inner wild beast of their own.