I expected to lose some weight on this trip, I thought grimly, kneeling on the cold cement floor of the dorm’s bathroom. Just not all at once. I blinked the sweat out of my eyes and tried to read my watch. It was hard to focus. Three hours since it had started. I’d given up trying to figure out whether it could be malaria, hepatitis or dengue fever. Deciding whether I was actually on the right continent for dengue fever, or whether that was only Asia, kept me entertained for at least 10 minutes. But by 3 a.m. I was past that. I was just sure that whatever it was, I’d probably be dead by dawn.
I was not dead by dawn, something I was not feeling well enough to celebrate with anything but a trace of disappointed resignation. At 6:30 on a chilly Kenyan morning I faced the fact that I would probably live, and that in exactly two hours I was scheduled to be standing in front of 20 people on the last day of a four-day conference, teaching about peer support after trauma to humanitarian workers from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.
The first three days of training had been . . . character building. Character building, as usual, being code for “experiences that suck so much while you’re going through them that the most effective solace available is the firm belief in future noble and virtuous personal benefits.” One good thing, though, was the location. Back in Africa for the first time in 11 years, I’d recognized the shape of the trees, flat against the horizon. The red dirt, the taste of warm Sprite from a dusty glass bottle, clouds of pollution billowing darkly from every second vehicle, the awareness that I was a white walking dollar sign: All were familiar from spending my teenage years in Zimbabwe.
What was not so familiar was the role I now wore like an uncomfortable suit—a forensic psychologist and an expert in stress and trauma management. As an Australian, being an expert in anything doesn’t sit well. And I find the ironies inherent in being a supposed expert in this particular field at the ripe old age of 28 difficult to ignore. But this year I’ve been relearning that important lesson I first grasped at 16 when we moved back to the United States and I convinced my entire class that in Zimbabwe we occasionally rode elephants to school and summered in a giant treehouse. Other people will believe almost anything if you say it with enough confidence and conviction. It’s just that I thought being a “grown-up” would mean actually feeling that confidence. Now I’m starting to think it just means being better at pretending a lot of the time.
At least I must be getting better at the pretending. Moses, one of the participants from Kenya, stopped me as I was locking up the conference room one night. “Can you ever turn it off, the psychology, when you’re with your friends?” he wanted to know. “Or do you think like that all the time?” I knew what he was asking. During the past couple of years I’ve encountered this over and over again at dinner parties, in airplanes, basically anytime I introduce myself and explain what I do. It usually boils down to one basic question—can you read my mind? And one basic fear —can you see my secret shame?
My standard response is to tell people that my psychology specialty is forensics, so unless they have criminal tendencies they’re safe from my powers. When I really want to freak someone out I’ll pause after that piece of lighthearted banter, narrow my eyes and look at them speculatively. Moses, however, was without guile, and I didn’t have the heart to try that on him. I paused, searching for a way to reassure him that his innermost thoughts were safer than he could imagine, without making me sound completely clueless. He didn’t wait for my answer though. “I think it must be very uncomfortable to be around you,” the 6-foot-3, muscle-bound giant beamed at me without malice, white teeth flashing.
I walked away from him 10 minutes later both flattered and disturbed. Flattered because someone, at least, thinks I have some answers. To life. Disturbed because someone thinks I have some answers. To life.
This latest trip to Kenya threw this paradox into sharp relief for me. I am the director of training and education for a nonprofit organization that provides psychological and spiritual support to relief and development personnel around the world. It’s my job to understand how difficult, how dangerous and how incredibly enriching international humanitarian work can prove. It’s my job to convince humanitarian workers that unless they consistently pay attention to caring for themselves while they’re working to care for others, they will be lucky to last for three years before returning home spent, disillusioned and possibly traumatized. It’s my job to know that approximately 25 percent of humanitarians working in such places as Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo can expect to undergo a potentially life-threatening experience during their assignment. And it’s my job to know what will help when these most horrendous events—the carjackings, kidnappings, land mines, shootings and tsunamis of life—blindside us on a pedestrian Tuesday afternoon.
On one level I can do this. I have lived in eight countries. A passion for international humanitarian work was born the year my family moved to Bangladesh and I asked, with the innocence of a sheltered 7-year-old, whether God had run out of money half way around the world. The allure of that promising partnership between helping to serve others and adventure is in my blood. I can help you discover what self-care strategies will and won’t help sustain you in the face of the loneliness that can come with being far away from family and home, the weariness that attends constant exposure to disaster, and the mental pressure of making decisions that mean some people receive life-saving aid while others do not. I also can tell you what sort of reactions to expect and danger signs to watch out for following a traumatic event.
Most of it is not rocket science. I sometimes feel ridiculous facing some of the most intelligent, dedicated and passionate individuals I have ever met, and reminding them that drinking too much is not an incredibly helpful self-care strategy and that they might want to consider journaling instead. But this is the sort of message humanitarian workers need to hear on a regular basis. Most start out in this field young, idealistic and vulnerable. When they find themselves working in an understaffed and undersupplied refugee camp facing more desperate people than they can possibly hope to help, it doesn’t take long before far too many take refuge themselves in alcohol, risk-taking, promiscuity or cynicism in an effort to cope.
On a personal level, however, I find myself wanting much more than this. What I really want to know is, why? Why is there so much suffering in this world? Why do humans have such a talent for violence? What does God think when he sees the tears and pain and incomprehension of those who have had their lives torn apart by an earthquake . . . a famine . . . a tsunami . . . other people? How do I reconcile omnipotence with such devastation and anguish? Why does He often seem so slow to act, and so silent? And, why have I been given so much, while others have so little?
But while I want the answers to these questions of meaning, they are the very answers I’m most keenly aware that I do not have. Not in the way that will ever let me start a sentence with the word “because” and feel any degree of certainty in the answer. In fact, most people I know who believe they have “those answers” are far more annoying than inspiring or comforting. Perhaps it’s more about understanding the questions that are raised than knowing “the answers.” Do you think? Perhaps one of these days I’ll say that, and it won’t feel like a cop-out.
Despite philosophical musings, food poisoning, eight days with no food and organizational politics that meant training this particular group was like trying to herd a group of turtles in a direction they didn’t want to go, it was a good trip. Day by day I’m getting better at understanding the questions and realizing that I have answers for fewer and fewer of them. At this rate I reckon I’ll have no answers at all in approximately one year, four months and three days. Then I’ll be really good at my job.
Lisa McKay works for the Headington Institute in Pasadena, California.