My Dark Night of the Soul in Aid Work (Part I)

This week an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger shares what she terms her ‘dark night of the soul’, in the first of a two-part post. Grief can be scariest when it seemingly erupts out of nowhere, yet refuses to be stemmed. 

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Original artwork by Francesca Belardini Arte.

August 2012. In the UK, it was the summer of the Olympics, of the Queen’s golden jubilee, of jet streams that interrupted every sunny day with sudden downpours. It was also the year when the world was supposed to come to an end, when the planets were to come into total alignment with the sun – an astrological event occurring only every few million years – and when we were to move beyond the technology, modernism and cold logic of the last few hundred years and towards a state of deeper consciousness, more connected to the earth and humanity.

That month found me in my small box room in my parents’ house, in hysterical tears. The tears were so uncontrollable for so many days and weeks, that I could be anywhere – not just in the quiet solitude of my bedroom – and I would start welling up with sadness and despair. I could be on the bus, or in a shop, or sitting at dinner with my family, and I would have to start choking back the wave that came rushing in; Oh no, not now…now is not the Continue reading

The mo(u)rning after

This post is written by an anonymous contributor.

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“Cosmic Bruise” by artist Ivy Michelle Berg, available at: ArtbyIvy

Like many who work in humanitarian aid, when I am asked about why I do it, I dissemble and misdirect, I make a joke or change the subject without actually answering. Sometimes I tell the truth as a joke, and hide it in plain sight. “World Peace” is such a reliable cliché to raise a smirk and avoid the question. To say out loud why I really do it, to put those words into the air, is too hard. I am afraid of the look I will see in the other person’s eyes, and afraid of their judgement. I am afraid that if I am honest, I will have to say it through the medium of a jaunty pop song, possibly from the 80’s. Because the truth is, I do it because I believe in love and I believe love can make the world a better place. Saying it out loud sounds so adolescently idealistic, so sentimentally naïve at best, self-righteous, arrogant and sanctimonious at worst.

I left my job at the end of last year in a maelstrom of mess; stretched out to the point of coming unravelled, shattered by too many emergencies, and a level of hostility within the organisation that I was entirely ill-equipped to withstand, profoundly disillusioned. I felt like the worst kind of fool for believing in any of it, and no longer had any faith in my own judgement. In the months since then, I have been trying to work out what happened, to parse out what it was all about, and to find my way back to myself.

I know about fear, as so many of us do. I know about those moments of absolute clarity when we think we may actually die, today, now. I know about the exquisitely heightened alertness of being in a moment that could go either way; a checkpoint guard toying with Continue reading

Brené Brown & the Power of Vulnerability

In aidspeak, ‘vulnerability’ is almost always a negative word. It denotes weakness, fragility,  a heightened possiblity of something or someone being in danger or at risk, unsafe or unprotected. It is something to be guarded against, mitigated, planned for; we often talk or (moreso) write about how our programs will ‘target vulnerable populations’ or ‘reduce vulnerability.’ We show donors and security officers how we recognize existing vulnerabilities and have made plans to keep ourselves and our staff safe.

This is not the fault of the aid world. Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability as meaning “easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally” or “open to attack, harm, or damage.”  A quick scan of other online dictionaries did not turn up any indication of Continue reading

Singing in the storm

bird-by-bird“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

― Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

On leaving work and wondering what to take away

This week’s blog is by Leora Ward, creator of Healing in Service. Leora has worked for many years in the social justice, women’s empowerment, and humanitarian fields.

As I leave my current job, after six years, it feels as if a phase of my life is closing. A circle is about to be completed, and I am left wondering what I should take away. What am I supposed to harvest from this season of my work in the humanitarian field?

This question has been cycling through my mind over the last few weeks. As I have written about it in my journal, talked about it with friends, and even listened to similar stories from other women in the social justice field, I have come up with three things that seem to continue to show up (for me and others) in our community.

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FEELINGS OF OVERWHELM AND ISOLATION

Many of us feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of need in the world, and the long-term vision required to fully achieve social justice. These feelings (and the associated grief) leave us discouraged, overworked, and isolated. The emotions can be so intense that we consistently feel like we are falling over and maybe flat onto our face. We also typically don’t have the networks or support we need to keep us healthy, grounded, and balanced in Continue reading

Being part of a humanitarian power couple: Lessons from the inside

 

This post is written by @josh_chaffin. The author did NOT choose the title of this post OR the photo, but indulged our aid worker sense of humor. 

One partner gets the job in a new country, the other stays flexible, comes along for the ride and makes it work. Repeat as necessary.

Be willing to have your partner disappear for a week or three weeks, a month or three months, all the time. Especially if one of you is consulting, which will usually be the case.  One year, before we had a kid, we were apart like 30% of the year.

But when you have a kid, suddenly the hardship posts and tons of travel for consulting are no longer possible. So you scramble to find two HQ or family duty posts and hold onto them for dear life. It’s not a family-friendly industry, or even a relationship-friendly industry. It’s littered with failed relationships and single people. You need to find a Continue reading

On change

to take and to give, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 519 x 880 cm. Artist: Chris Ofili. Source: http://www.victoria-miro.com/artists/6-chris-ofili/

Chris Ofili, painter, on moving from London to Trinidad:

I felt ready for the change to happen, and I knew it was happening inside me, he said, straining to be clear. It’s hard to go away from something that’s very enjoyable, and a domain where I felt supremely confident. Before, I was focussing on high impact, and what I wanted to find was less complex and maybe less visible.

Back from the borderlands

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This post is written by an anonymous contributor.

It is difficult to write about ending a mission while on mission. It is difficult to write about taking a break when the breaks one is able to take are too short to notice, too quick to be able to unwind. Working in isolated and dangerous locations takes a toll on a person’s body and mind. We come here to help people, but forget about taking care of ourselves.

I am guilty of this, of not making time to rest and re-energise. I think this is important, even in the midst of a demanding mission. It makes it easier for us to re-enter “normal” society after the mission is over, to meaningfully reconnect with those we love and who love us. I have been continuously working in so-called “deep field” locations for the pastseven years, with fluctuating levels of remoteness and insecurity. I count myself fortunate that only one person I care about was killed. I have had several friends kidnapped for Continue reading

Sea Change

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Source: MIT Water Club 

My father taught us very early on to respect the sea. As young girls, my sister and I would go into the water with him on an inflatable raft and learn to “catch” waves, to ride them into the shore. If we started paddling too late, we would miss the wave entirely; too soon, and it would break on top of us and sometimes throw us off the raft. We would go tumbling along on the sand under the water, forced to hold our breath until the wave let us come up for air again (getting “rolled”, as he called it). It was scary, but exhilarating.

Our most important lesson came on calm days, when he taught us not to mistake the smooth surface of the water and absence of waves for a lack of action underneath. Even when they are barely visible on the surface, there are always currents and sometimes a strong undertow. These powerful forces can carry us very far — in a direction that we may or may not want to go. And sometimes they act stealthily, taking us a ways down the shore before we even realize that we are being redirected.

When I first took a break from aid work, I felt burnt out and alone.  I started this blog in part to confront that stereotype, to respond to the many whispered conversations and questions of, “I feel like that too” and “But how did you do it?” and “Aren’t you scared you’ll never be able to go back?” I had seen a close colleague and friend, someone who I had long admired in the field, leave her job in a sudden and heartbreaking way. I supported her as best I could during her last few months at work, when she felt abandoned by the very entity that she had given so much to over the years. She eventually took the difficult and Continue reading