I’ve been home now for just over a week. I was so excited to return to my friends and family and, perhaps most of all, my two dogs, that the realization that I was home did not sink in for a couple of days. Thoughts are now setting in. I feel sad that I was not able to help more, and guilty that I am able to fly across the world back home to my comfortable bed, to my car, to my healthy family and friends. I feel guilty realizing just how very privileged and lucky I am. We give my one of my dogs who is fourteen years old a medication for her painful arthritis that many patients in Zimbabwe cannot even afford. I’ve been struggling with feeling despair about the lives and suffering of so many people, of such profound poverty.
One of the most frustrating parts of coming home is noticing how difficult it can be to recognize our own privilege. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own lives without understanding just how lucky we are, without realizing what it means to have nothing. It has been saddening to return home and be faced with the political discourse in this country – to see our own government shutting the doors to the populations most in need outside of our borders, but very likely within our borders as well.
I’ve been listening to a five-part podcast series by On The Media describing poverty in America. One concept discussed has hit home for me as I try to grapple with my time in Zimbabwe. The narrator describes the rejection of empathy by psychologist Paul Bloom, author of “Against Empathy,” who argues that compassion, caring, and love can be useful, but putting yourself into the shoes of other people can lead to burnout. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with this line of thinking. However, I did identify with the described rejection of empathy by playwright Bertholt Brecht:
“When he depicted injustice he did not want us to say, ‘yes, I felt like that too, it’s only natural. It’ll never change. The sufferings of this man appall me because they are inescapable.’ Brecht worked willfully to undermine our empathetic tears so that we could see more clearly and say, ‘that’s not right! That’s unbelievable! It’s got to stop. The sufferings of this man appall me because they are unnecessary.’”
This, ultimately, is what makes me feel empowered to use my experiences in Zimbabwe to make a difference in the future. I don’t need to tuck away my compassion and love for a suffering person, but rather need to use my own outrage at the injustice to make an impact.