“I feel the pain of everyone, then I feel nothing.” – Dinosaur Jr. “Feel The Pain”
“So shines a good deed in a weary world.” – Willy Wonka (paraphrasing Shakespeare)
My friend and I have been emailing each other. She’s in South Sudan trying to keep her NGO’s public health programs on track in the midst of a major ethnic conflict and the destabilizing political unrest that has followed in its wake. The first few days she was there, her anxiety was through the roof. This isn’t her first rodeo. She’s lived in an area of armed conflict before, but something about the chaotic, ugly, unsettling things she’s seeing in this power struggle between the Nuer and the Dinka tribes is hitting her differently. “This is by far, and without a question, the hardest trip of my life. I think I am getting too old and… too soft hearted for this, Chris. I no longer have the ability to shut my emotions off – which is a great thing in most contexts, but not here”, she said.
The area where she is based, once predominately inhabited by members of the Nuer tribe who have fled the fighting, is virtually deserted and has been looted. The current unrest in South Sudan is not at the fever pitch it was at December’s end, but fighting persists. Though there is a negotiated cease-fire agreement in place, tensions simmer and firing continues accompanied by accusations by each group that the other isn’t upholding its end of the bargain.
Meanwhile, approximately 900,000 people have been displaced from their homes, and are crowding into cramped refugee camps. People, as part of the world’s poorest “Bottom Billion”, who already endure the harsh living conditions that accompany poverty are likely about to experience misery doubling-down on them as the rainy season will soon begin and the food supply of a precarious nation will be severely compromised if the farmers can’t get back to their land and plant the season’s food crops.
Kelly is super important to me (one of my closest friends) and because I selfishly want her to return home safely, I was worrying about her and asked her how “in danger” she thought she was. I said that I hoped she would high-tail it out of there if she thought danger was eminent. She said she would, and that while there is an inherent level of risk that naturally accompanies this kind of situation, she didn’t think she was in eminent danger, and at least for now, she couldn’t leave. She said she’d made a conscious decision to lean into her fear and anxiety instead of resisting it, and press forward to do what she can to help people under such difficult circumstances, which in my mind is the very definition of courage. Then she sent me the video clip I’ve embedded below. She said she was choosing to step away from her own story and the fear she felt, and would try to hang onto both her empathy and compassion with a steely grip and do what she could to help from that emotional space.
Last year, the Cleveland Clinic put together a video about empathy. Maybe you’ve seen it. I had, but I thought it was worth watching again just to remind me of the value of dropping the drama of my own stories for long enough to consider that what someone else is going through might merit my attention and help, or at the least, my compassion. If nothing else, it helps right-size my perspective.
Sometimes, it’s exceedingly hard to confront pain and suffering without turning away, but I hope to lean into my own discomfort when I do and press forward with a compassionate heart and do what I can to help. For now, I’m sending some money to the organizations with people on the ground doing what they can to make a difference. If you feel compelled to do the same, here are some options: UNHCR, The Carter Center, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders.