write what you know

let's start out with an old essay/combination of emails that i wrote a few months back, at the end of my placement in tarija, bolivia with CARE and Esperanza/Bolivia.

This first excerpt is from an email to a friend who had lauded me for spending my summer doing what I’ve been doing. She herself is planning on a career in something that could be construed as service work, though she’s had very little direct experience in the field, especially outside of Atlanta.

your comment about living around/experiencing poverty (you were talking about me and your brother traveling to bolivia and south africa) sparked a line of thinking for me over the last week or so (since you emailed me, anyways). ive been trying to reconcile my gut reactions to poverty to the way i know i should act and the way i think i do act on the outside. when i see poverty (and here i mean poor people, but its quicker to write one word than two), my immediate reaction is to put away my camera, to be conscious not to stare, to try to act normal. but why should i have to act normal, why should it bother me? i thought about this and realized that for some reason i've internalized the notion, and i cant seem to dislodge it, that poverty is something that is shameful, and if they're not going to feel ashamed, then i'm going to feel ashamed for them. but still, thats not right, its not something shameful, its simply a result of a confluence of thousands of different factors, from global political economy to the distribution of certain disease vectors to racism and simply bad luck. so here i am stuck with all these preconceived notions about what it is im looking at and how i feel about it, and i dont want these notions, but i cant get rid of them, and then i realize i dont even know what im looking at. i mean, what is poverty here? right now i live in a house that i share with 6 other people, 7 cats and a very old dog. there's one bathroom, i have my own bedroom, and everyone else is two to a room. i can see significant patches of light through the door and walls of my room, and my only furniture is the bed and two shelves that i try to pile my clothes on. the bathroom is outside, there's no hot water to speak of, and i wash my clothes every week by hand in the sink and hang them out on the patio. in atlanta that housing situation would put me one step above homeless, but here, though im by no means in a wealthy neighborhood, im a long ways from indigent. so is something poverty in the us that isnt poverty in bolivia? not even talking about income, which depends a lot on exchange rates and purchasing power parity and all kinds of other economics-type stuff, but talking about actual housing situations, the way that i live, it seems poverty is relative. but how can it be relative when its based on such exact, non-relative material things? i know, i know, poverty many times is measured by the ability to access basic necessities, like nutrition especially, and in that case neither i nor anyone in the neighborhood around me is in danger of indigency. maybe the dogs, but certainly not the people. so then i start thinking about my specific situation, not that of the people in my neighborhood, but my state of wandering and doing volunteer work because i was rich enough and lucky enough to be smart enough to get rich people to give me even more money, money which would probably be better spent on bars of soap in rural areas than my actual labor for care. so i was born incredibly lucky, in probably the 99th percentile of luck in the entire world. what does that mean? does that mean that, since it was all dumb luck anyways, since its not my fault that im rich, that i am exonerated from any debt to society? or does it make my burden of debt even greater? thinking about it as dispassionately as possible, i cant really say that either one of those is the right answer. but i do feel a certain internal pull to simply leave the world a better place than when i found it, and the most direct way that i can think to do that (in a way thats pleasing to me, of course, which might not be fair to the people whose lives im trying to improve) is to work in public health in impoverished countries. so that brings me back to me in the act of seeing poverty. what are my responsibilities there, what is the right response? i know the wrong response is to look away, i do know that at least (i think). but is it my responsibility to bear witness, to spread awareness, or is that some sort of sick capitalization on their poverty, is that something like poverty tourism? i guess what im trying to say with all of this is that i have a hugely difficult time taking pictures of people, because i know that im taking the pictures because i find them different, i am in fact taking pictures of them because i conceive of them as the other, but i dont want to be seen as the other, and i wonder what people realize about my motivations (or people's motivations, in general) for taking pictures. while the camera allows me to bring a part of this world with me, to show it to other people and spread awareness, it also separates me, it gets in the way of interactions. so what it all comes down to is the fact that even though you talk about my experience abroad, my experience working with poverty, i worry about what kind of experience im getting. i mean, its so difficult to even define what im looking at, much less to define my relationship to it, and then im even ignoring (you will notice, in this entire email), the relationship in the other direction. there's just too much to think about already that i cant even begin to think about what other people think of me.

In this next one, I had actually forwarded the above to a different friend, to get a second opinion as they say. I got a response back, but I wanted to clarify a few things that I had said earlier, since it had been running around my head in the interim anyways.

anyways, it does seem like you understand what i was trying to say, and i appreciate very much your thoughts on the subject. the only part that i would want to add to what you've said is when you were talking about why we look away when we see someone who is less fortunate (and here im using the phrase to connote generality, not a euphemism) than ourselves. you end by noting that maybe its because we're taught to not stare, and i think that rings very true. but then that begs the question (in the common usage of the phrase, not the logical sense....just wanted to throw that in there for you) of why we're taught not to stare. we're taught not to stare because its rude, right? why is it rude? i'm thinking of this mostly in terms of the seeing-and-being-seen dynamic. if we stare, that is the most obvious (to the outside world) way to see. with it, it brings along a strong probability that the subject of that seeing is going to realize that they're being seen. this goes along with what i was saying about the camera, in a very literal sense. i think we are taught not to stare because we dont want that person, the subject, to know that they're being seen. why shouldn't we want that? quite honestly, im coming to a wall here. i dont know. but i think it has to do with the reaction that we expect our seeing, and thus their knowledge of being seen, to evoke. i think its like seeing someone naked. unless there's an obvious reaction, like a scream, or an erection, you dont know if that person is glad to be being watched, indifferent, or uneasy. however, we're taught that you shouldnt be naked, and thus that you shouldnt want to be naked, and above all that you shouldnt want to be seen naked, or better phrased, you should want to not-be-seen when circumstances dictate that you must be naked. why do teenagers and young adults, more than any other age group, get a rush out of skinny-dipping? clearly because of the mix of the erotic (which i would actually suggest is the less motivating factor) with the transgressive. we're not supposed to be naked, but lets fuck the man, we're going to be naked just to prove a point! ok, that metaphor's been extended enough. so we're looking at this poor or disabled person, and we've always been taught that you shouldnt be poor or disabled. not necessarily because there's a societal taboo like with nudity, but because we're taught that its intensely undesirable. and in that way it does go against all of our socialization. so because we realize this without thinking about it, without really even realizing that we realize it, we expect this to be a shared value with the person that we're seeing. we expect them to view their condition as intensely undesirable as well. and thus we expect them to realize that they are different, that they are lesser, because they are going against what society tells us is right, and therefore that they realize that the reason we're looking at them is because they are lesser. but then we've got this conflicting instinct, this thing we're taught about equality, and how better to pretend that we're all equals than by pretending that we're all the same. and thus to pretend we're all the same, we have to pretend that we don't see differences, and thus we have to not stare. i guess its not completely conflicting, because both of these instincts, the one about judging and the one about equality, have a strong underlying current of conformity. so you could probably look at it another way. if you've got two people, or better, a crowd, a group of people, and they're all looking at the same thing, they're all experiencing roughly the same external experience, and thus they feel strangely united. now im bordering on crowd psychology, which fergus tells me is actually a load of crap, but i dont know enough about anything to know why it would or wouldnt be crap, so ill continue. so there's this equality of looking at one thing, a speech or a performance or a fight or a plane crash or whatever. but then if you cause any two people to look at each other, they are forced to become separate entities, to understand that they are two people and that they have external differences as well as internal difference. they are forced to see different things, and this puts us in an uncomfortable position. we really just want to be connected with people, to share experiences, but not to impart different experiences. if two people are looking at people, they must come to terms with their nonconformity. thus begins the judging and the conflicting desire for equality and the uneasiness about the unknown factor of what the other person is experiencing, and what they're getting out of that experience.

This last one is certainly the angriest (again, sorry for the profanity). Beyond being frustrated with my placement (I was getting bored, and this is just before I made plans to start working with Esperanza/Bolivia), I was also frustrated about the situation in the Middle East (which directly affected someone very close to me) and a conversation I had had with a Peace Corps volunteer a day or two before. Basically, he seemed like a good guy (as I’m going to assume that most people who would donate two years of their life to service work in a developing country must be), but I was a little turned off by the inflexibility of his goals here. In addition to his normal project (beekeeping, basically), he wanted to teach rural adults (in a community that I’ve been to frequently) basic literacy in Spanish. Basically, as soon as he offered that, they told him no, they didn’t want to learn to read and write in Spanish (in my opinion, that community anyways is by far one of the more literate that I’ve seen), but they would like him to teach them English. Which I don’t think he took very well. Anyways, this little encounter really drove home the point that its not nearly enough to just have good intentions, you also have to somehow know what is best, and this idea of what is best must be agreeable to everyone involved. Or, to put it more simply, you can make some serious mistakes even with the best of intentions. So anyways, all of this, plus everything else I’ve seen and felt and done this summer made me seriously question (and I’m still questioning) what it is I really want to do with my life. For the past few years, I’ve been convinced it had to be something non-profit, for the common good and all that, that I couldn’t understand the people who just want to work to make money. Now, it’s not that I’m becoming more desirous of a comfortable life in the suburbs somewhere, but I’m certainly feeling a certain urge to run away from it all. OK, I think that went a little beyond context, since I explain most of that in this part, but here you go:

sorry for all the cynicism. i wrote jennie an email a week or so back, and she wrote back that she was really surprised by my writing style, because it didn't have a hint of any of the normal "patrick-cynicism". not a great way to be labeled, but i guess if the shoe fits. i think i'm more or less at the point where you were just after getting back. i'm so fucking angry and frustrated after seeing just a small, small view of how completely fucked up this world is, and my head hurts from banging it up against the wall and not getting anything changed for what i think is the better. it's too complex for me to totally understand, even after (what will still hopefully, i think, be) a lifetime of trying to figure it out, and as i start unwinding the threads, they just tangle themselves at the other end. i guess that's what "development" work is. the eternal firefighters, running from one blaze to the next, but always secretly fearing that the fires will finally go out, because then what will we have to worklivegetpaid for? a guy today was talking about something he saw on the internet, about how in 70 years there will literally be wars (as if there aren't already) over water. the destruction of the environment is progressing at a ridiculous rate, and what are we doing? my parent's generation is busy trying to get the last few drops of resources out before it's all run out. a few people just younger than them seem to be doing their best to help the people who have been ruined by the ruined environment, but knowinglyunknowingly placing greater burdens on them to preserve the few wild places left than were ever placed or are currently placed on the people bent on destroying those places (care, im looking at you), while the rest of the generation does their best to not see. and then there's us. it's our turn and i can't think of anything better to do, i'm ready to go back to atlanta and open a hookah bar with you and stick my head back in the sand where it belongs. my parents say often "we're so sorry for the world that we've left you and your children" and quite honestly, the best i can think of right now is to pass the buck. things aren't going to be better for my children, and certainly not for my grandchildren, in fact, they're almost guaranteed to be infinitely worse. i'm going to end up another old fart sitting around, dying of some sort of cancer (at least with smoking i can choose which type, with pesticides and petrochemicals i can't even hold on to that bit of agency), musing about how much better things were back in the good old 2020's and apologizing to my grandchildren about the shit that i've passed on to them. god, i hate it when people start things with "before, it was [like this, different somehow]". i've gotten into what i think is the good habit of always asking "before what?". here, the question is usually more pointed, being "before the arrival of the spanish? before the arrival of the incas? before independence? before the tin market crash?". still, even with such pointed questions, people can't usually answer. in fact, i don't ever remember getting some sort of satisfactory (for my curiosity) answer.

gargh, i don't know, everything is just too complex. life is really overwhelming, if you think about it. i mean, first you've got to eat, but make sure that everything that you're putting into your body is a) something it needs and b) something that's not carrying something that's going to hurt you. then you need to worry about expelling everything you take in, either as waste or energy or whatever. then you need to worry about keeping your outside, and limited parts of your inside, as close to sterile as possible, so as to make sure that what you don't choose to put in your body doesn't somehow get in anyways. then you need to find a place to sleep, and in more general terms just places to live, which aren't going to negatively affect the fine balance that you've constructed with all your selective intake/output. after all that is satisfied (or perhaps before), you're expected somehow "contribute to society" in a way which will merit society giving you these silly little slips of paper that tell the people in the grocery store and the pharmacy and the gas station and the apartment complex that you have been deemed fit to possess all these things that are necessary for your body. and simultaneously you're expected to actually be a part of the society that you're supposedly contributing to, but first you need to define what this "society" is that i'm talking about, it's limits and limitations, and then you need to go about locating yourself in this made up, bounded entity (or perhaps better: this entity with made-up boundaries). and then there are some of us that are stupid enough to think that we can somehow keep all these flaming, screeching llamas flying in the air above our heads while we reach for the flaming, screeching llamas of other people's necessities, trying to lighten their load because, for one reason or another, we have decided two very arbitrary things: first off, that these people are either incapable or unfit to juggle their own flaming, screeching llamas. and second, that for some reason we are. so then on top of all of that, first of all i've (now this is back to being a self-centered email) got to figure out why i've made these two arbitrary decisions, but i've also got to somehow decide for these people, whose flaming, screeching llamas are whirling over my head, the best way that these people's flaming, screeching llamas should be whirling. in this decision over the whirling, i'm supposed to balance something between what my desires and ideas are for the proper whirling of flaming, screeching llamas and whatever i can find out (and thus try to understand, but always wondering if it's really for my own purposes) about these other people's flaming, screeching llama whirling preferences. how do i weight whirling preferences? is one necessarily better, eclipsing the other, or do i need to find some middle ground, which would then be based on both my always faulty understanding and my equally (or perhaps more, but probably not less) faulty judgment of the merits of both sets of preferences? and then as if that weren't enough, i need to worry about the juggling of other people of other flaming, screeching llamas, because the way they make their llamas whirl might cause them to crash into mine, or vice versa, and if i really care about the flaming, screeching llamas of one set of people, shouldn't i care about the flaming, screeching llamas of all sets of people? or is ok to bound my concern for the juggling of flaming, screeching llamas? does the exclusion of one set of concerns based on supposedly pragmatic grounds call into question my concern for all others? does it even really matter, since these concerns have already been called into question in other steps in the process? all i can really say that is some days it seems like a really ridiculously huge burden to just have to wash my clothes, or brush my teeth, or eat or poop, knowing that i'm just going to have to do it all over again the day after that and the day after that and the day after that, and so on and so forth and forever and ever amen. why can't i just get all my sleep out of the way right now, sleep for 20 years straight, then get up and live last 40 or so years of my life without having to worry about it? it would thrill me just to eat one big meal that will keep me for the next few weeks, let alone the next few years or decades. it's enough to want to stick my head in the sand while i start up some useless cafe or company or whatever that serves clientele that could be just as well served at the cafe a few blocks down the street. but hey, at least i could sleep at night, rather than staying up all night writing stupid, desperate, crazy, barely intelligible emails to my best friend. and even now i know that i'm not being fair to people who are in no way hiding from the world by running a cafe, but really they're just following a dream, a calling, a lifegoal, however you want to define any of those things.

self-knowledge is a bitch, even severely limited self-knowledge like mine, if it even merits that label. so i guess the best thing i can do now is just to put my head down, not quite in the sand but certainly at least enough to keep the wind and burning sun out, and just head right on. yeah, i'm still planning on going to public health school, in fact, i've got something of a 5-year plan worked out. the problem is that i can't decide if i'm doing this because i really think it's the best thing for me to be doing (or for that matter, if i even care anymore) or if it's really just a lack of imagination on my part, an inability to imagine myself on a different track. yeah, i know stuff never goes as planned, and the some of the best trips i've taken have been approached with a complete lack of expectations, but i've got to have something to fix my sight on, mostly because i'm worried that without some sort of fixed point, i'll end up going knowinglyunknowinglyuncaringlyevenhappily in circles.