Little Bruce Wayne walks into his living room one evening to find the bloodied bodies of his parents laying sprawled across the floor, the work of burglars. In his pain and anger, he swears to bring justice. And in that conviction was born the protector of Gotham city.
I catch myself too often in search of similar stories; it makes that almost unnatural drive and commitment in our heroes, a tad more believable. Such deeply personal, and sometimes traumatic stories seem to reconcile the contradictions one must sustain within oneself to achieve something meaningful; an ability to be sober and drunk at once perhaps, to be clear-sighted in action, not delusional about the value of one’s core convictions, yet exhibiting a simultaneous willingness to shield and cultivate an inner realm away from that same constant questioning glare (required for action).
And the stories themselves, they are perhaps but the birthmark by which I identify my heroes, those drunk on the ecstasy of living yet sober in their pursuits and convictions. Because it is my suspicion that it is not indeed incidents that make a story, but a sensitive soul’s desire to create meaning, its ability to sense the significance of events within a plausible wider narrative. And perhaps in the telling of such stories and the search for fitting endings to one’s own stories, is the germ of meaningful action. Maybe here too, all this wild theorizing and my own search for such superheroes in Cairo needs a little back-story.
Many accidents led to my aspiration to public service, a middle school teacher asking me to join the debate team after a homework essay won an international prize, grandparents and great grandparents engaged in public service, parents nudging me in the direction of student governance, a high school that prided itself for producing half the cabinet, a country that prized public service above most other callings, and the confusion that comes with reading relativity over an eighth grade summer… In high school, I applied myself to this aspiration with a fervor and energy that I have in few instances mustered since. At the center of it was a conviction that my sole purpose was to help others. In retrospect, it seems to have been prompted and sustained by a mix of self-denial (central to the self-image of a well brought-up Indian Catholic kid), premature existential musings, and an unacknowledged comfort in the rewards of engaging in student government.
Yet that simple but abstract conception dissolved in time and experience, draining the well of energy that comes from firm positive convictions. I tried to fight this by fleshing out the skeleton of abstract philosophies with experiences – the focus of my time in college and the conscript army. Habit of thought, or perhaps a deeper inkling, has meant that I have constantly found it difficult to accept a job that may serve purely personal interests. But this discomfort has locked heads with the part of me that derides the desire to ‘help’ as nothing but socially inherited feudal pretensions about one’s duty to help the less ‘privileged’, or a mere crass pleasure in the gratitude of the helpless helped. Part of why I attempted to immerse myself deeply in the lives of migrants living below the poverty line in India over the previous summer, was a desire to know if a lack of empathy was what crippled my conviction. While at one level, these experiences gave me a more nuanced understanding of the tragedies of unrealized human potential, of unnecessary pain suffered due to structures of power, on another, it forced me to acknowledge the inefficiencies involved in much of development work, the difficulties in bringing about lasting positive change, and perhaps most importantly brought about a reluctant acceptance that within what may be the rather separate worlds of the helper and the helped, opportunity and disaster, pain and happiness, may be attached to very different objects. What I gained in conviction about the necessity of the work, I may have lost in a more realistic understanding of the effectiveness of what I hope to do.
As I continue my search for contingent truths in Cairo, for stories and heroes that may strengthen my resolve, there are two thoughts I borrow from Charlie Chaplin and which guide my search. The first is a warning, particularly for those of us who wish to help through our understanding of systems of power; the constant possibility that “Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. [That] we think too much and feel too little.” The second is central to what inspires me to work, a conviction simple enough to not be too wildly wrong, that “We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each others’ misery.”
Yet to live by one other’s happiness, I must find out if I can be happy myself. Too often, I have seen foreigners in strange countries, trying to prove themselves or help others with a deep emptiness within, an emptiness that cripples them with time. I have heard one too many times that every foreigner in Cairo is running away from something. And it has a ring of truth that makes me sometimes wonder if I must not be too. Yet I remain optimistic that there are those who have been able to sustain an inner world that keeps them happy, energized, and perhaps even at home, while abroad; in wishing to cross this minefield, I want to follow the paths of those who have tread before me.
When I first arrived, my inclination was to categorize those whom I met: the adventurer living life one adrenaline rush at a time; the slightly timider sort who believes in bold initiatives that test one’s convictions; the exotifying tourist looking for an excuse to travel; the messenger of Development Truths out to save the world; his quieter cousin that fights the tide one drop at a time; those escaping a mid-life crisis; yet others recovering from one and starting life anew in a new place. But a few weeks in, I suspect there is a little bit of all of these in varying measure in most of us here, myself included, and my superhero may not be one to easily reveal his or her true identity in the midst of such categorizing.
And so I must give time, travel deeper, and listen. Stories and superheroes rarely reveal themselves in broad daylight.
A Note: The first piece I attempted could not be posted for its potential to jeopardize the wellbeing of my refugee clients. Perhaps there was not a better way for me to learn more about the ethics of story-telling. I apologize for the delay in getting this new first post out and I hope you will understand if I might be sparse on detail for the benefit of our clients.