Today I wanted to approach a less whimsical subject, one that is perhaps a little less full of light and color but one that is very much a part of all of our journeys. I had written up a post for this blog over New Year’s, but never posted it. And then one for springtime too, but still couldn’t find it in myself to post. I write now from an artisanal ice-cream shop, sitting on an old time stool and a repurposed wooden bar with scratches, spills, and ingrained sprinkles. That blueberry lemon kiddie cup (since when did kiddie size mean two scoops) hit the spot. I am on home leave for five weeks, away from South Sudan and in green Pennsylvania and can finally process. Ice cream here is good.
For the past year, living in South Sudan has not been physically difficult. Sure, walking around on the Juba streets is not the same as walking in Europe or the U.S.; biking is neither an option in Juba, but life is a far cry from difficult. But what makes it difficult is time: time spent writing from my desk hidden away in a concrete block building with barbed wire fence outside the window about 4.3 million people expected to reach near famine levels, or whatever number in vogue from the latest nation-wide report, became mundane. 4.3 million people became numbers, not faces. Statistics of pregnant women who die while giving birth became just that. Mundane behind block walls.
Seeing those faces in person should have been the solution. Kind eyed ladies with their children lagging behind them at the distribution points. But then, visiting the projects in the field, rural areas targeted for assistance, didn’t always make it any better the mundane, lifeless feeling. I saw the faces, and took their photos, usually smiling and happy despite having only reemerging from six-months of living in the swamps, skin covered in scabies in an attempt to hide from the very government that is supposed to be protecting them. Even those faces, I didn’t want to really see. Because it gets you tired, trying to love everyone when the situation seems to be only getting worse.
The second night when I came home in green tinged Pennsylvania, images haunted my sleeping mind. Of me, having to escape with some of my co-workers from armed men. Running through precarious passageways, rebels being killed at an arms’ length away. Nightmares evolved, me, the protagonist of my mind, knowing that I would escape but they, the people left behind, couldn’t. The people could never escape the war. When I work up, that image really frightened me. Compassion fatigue has bothered me much more than I had even thought.
Unfortunately, I don’t write this to share a solution if you like me are feeling tired or feeling overwhelmed by a needy world, no matter how small that world may be. I can’t give a list of ways that one can commence to address personal compassion fatigue, or for that matter even trauma at its various degrees. But I have come to realize that my compassion fatigue did not start in South Sudan, it started at home in the U.S. I would define compassion fatigue as a soul tiredness, a tiredness from having to love and trying to love those whom we don’t know or even those we do know. Especially when the situation seems impossible. A tiredness that makes us stare blankly and makes us not really care or want to be affected by having to care.
I found that compassion fatigue in my life has been as a result of continual subliminal messaging of a hurting world: seeing news clips in urban Philadelphia of a homicide in a community bogged down by addictions, hearing of a car crash five-minutes from my house in which a young sixteen-year old girl dies, reading of another airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan, riots in China, shootings in Colorado, Paris, Orlando. And social media, for all its good intentions, is only making the constant feed of bad even worse. The consistency of having to ingest violence and hate in our world, a constant flow from the media, from a friend, from personal experience. It can be too overpowering to our senses that we fail to feel any longer.
These past seven months of silence have been that in South Sudan. While I have had amazing experiences and adventures that have taken me to Amsterdam, New York, Jaipur and all the way back, I haven’t been able to write. Because sometimes it’s hard to see joy, to feel joy, amidst this over-stimulation and the resulting deadening of my ability to care and to love.
I am grateful: I have a God, a friend and father all the same, who knows how to love and care far more than I will ever comprehend in this lifetime. And he lifts that burden from me, to care and to love for all of those hurts. And while my job in South Sudan is to know where those hurts are around the world, the wars, deaths, abductions, social injustices that happen in my very back yard, I know that for each word I read, I can commit that situation up to God and move on. Because while I can pray for healing in far off catastrophes, I can’t be emotionally involved in every situation.
So for now, I want to keep being informed, but I want to disconnect from immigration crises in Australia because I can’t do anything about that while floating in between East Africa and the U.S., but God can. Instead, I can chose to take on the hurt of those in my immediate world, my family, friends, colleagues and even new people that are placed in my life as the journey continues. And by only concentrating on those small hurts, my burden lightens and I can keep choosing joy and sharing joy. We all hurt too much and can’t let those hurts be the end all. Because it will all end one day. For now, we just have to keep moving onward.
For now, I want to walk outside along the canal in a slightly less golden sun than that in Africa, I want to pet my furry little friends, sit in coffee shops, visit farmers markets and marvel at growth and substance in food. I want to breathe in joy so that I can breathe it back out when I return to Juba in just three-short weeks. My laptop’s lid will be closed much more frequently and I will paint, camp, read, watch the stars, catch up on this lonely little blog and be inspired by others around me who have faced trials and tribulations so positively.
For all who are out there, thanks for reading along, thanks for your patience and friendly hellos. Please know that your hurts mean something to someone far greater than any person in this world. I look forward to catching-up and sharing some of my latest adventures in subsequent posts!