Friday, October 9, 2015

Stop Helping; Start Seeing

We are rightfully raised that it is good to be of service to others. As a woman, biology and culture together weave a story of volunteering time to help others, whether they are friends going through a difficult time, projects that need helping hands, children to tend to.

Volunteer Teaching in Uganda
In many ways I have dedicated my life to service and giving. My Masters is in Educational Development. I was going to live in Uganda with my now ex-husband and be helpful. At that time in my life, my idea of being helpful was inextricably linked to making changes that would positively affect people’s lives. I studied and pondered how girls could get a better chance at schooling, and how quality of education could improve in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was around this time that I developed a sense of guilt for my white privilege, for my upper-middle class upbringing, and a sense that I had to make up for it through giving what I had away, whether it be my time, my money, my skills, or my energy. My eyes were opened to the seemingly random power structures of the world, and how by chance of geography, race and class I had ended up somewhere on top.

Like all of us, I have stumbled along the way. The friends I kept helping and then ended up resenting. The family rift I couldn’t fix. Travelling across the world for service projects and realizing that it’s actually me that might be growing more than anyone I am working for. These experiences force me to ask what does it mean to be of service in a meaningful way? I see that giving until exhaustion doesn’t work, and that guilt-giving causes more harm than good.

I have started to play with the idea that I could replace giving with seeing and learning. I get to practice this every day with my son. Tchabo’s Dad visited, and Tchabo was naturally crying as they said goodbye. Every cell in my body wanted to take away his sad feelings, whether going back in time to create a different scenario, or saying something to cheer him up. Should I distract him with a treat? Should I tell him that everything will be okay? Instead I swallowed my need to fix and told him that it made sense to me that he was crying, and that he could cry until he was done. After 20 minutes of sadness and quiet, Tchabo exclaimed with delight “I cried for half an hour, and now I’m done!”

I think we can practice seeing or presence in lieu of giving, or as a deeper form of giving. We can do this with ourselves, with our immediate friends and family, and culturally and politically we can do this on a larger scale. This is not an argument against action. I’m making a case that we reframe our action. Instead of begrudgingly helping and hosting Syrian refugees, nations could look at how they could learn and grow from the refugee story. With this mindset it could be a privilege and a great stroke of luck to host these families, to learn about resilience, to be present to the results of wars that we are involved in, to gain perspective about what is essential.

Instead of starting NGOs to foster development in sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps we could just bear witness to the terrific stories of resilience, survival, and playfulness, and start to expand our own idea of what it means to be human. If I ever start another NGO it will be to save the broken values of the US with stories of inspiration from Africa. I am not making light of profound problems, but rather questioning our "fix-it" mentality that seems to bear an implicit superiority rather than the connection that shared stories bring.

This is why See Stories is the name for my youth education storytelling business. As we practice seeing, and being present to our own story and the stories of others, we grow in deep and profound ways. In my case, I learned that my helpfulness was often a way to experience myself as a good, lovable person, which actually I already am without doing anything at all. Ironically, I am helpful in a deeper and more lasting way now that I have realized this.