Monday, August 31, 2015

For clarity, gaze from the hilltop.

Moments of clarity.  It's two girls sprawled over a fluffy green comforter in a sunlit upstairs bedroom, discussing C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, and agonizing over what it means to live a meaningful life. It is the elder who, at the end, looks back and forgives. And it is the addict who wakes up one morning and never takes a puff or drink again. Clarity. It’s the smartest scientist in history who labored over theories of relativity for years but didn’t connect the dots until he got on a bus. The moment the fog clears, the static dissipates, and time is stretched like a slingshot, tight to bursting and released in a roaring trajectory that, upon threading a single poignant realization, begins to stitch together ones heart and soul to reveal greater truths.

Humans strive for clarity because we’ve grown to dread the alternative.  In a world that barrages us with injustice and confusion, clarity, we believe, tries to bring us back to core values and ideas. To what "really" matters. Reality broken down into its simplest juxtapositions for when we feel so overwhelmed with life's complexity we would rather just crawl back to bed or morph into a Kafkian cockroach, than start muddling through all the contradictions. What will we tolerate and not tolerate? What will we fight for and not fight for? And if we stand for one thing, doesn't that obligate us to stand for another? What truths do we want to define us? At the risk of oversimplification, clarity allows a way of stripping away our fear, our doubts, and instead encourages us to act.

I have felt overwhelmed, as I think many Millenials have, at the host of national and world problems we will inherit, let alone the ones we are already dealing with as we come into adulthood. As CollegeHumor's Onion-esque post "Why It's Socially Unacceptable To Do Anything in 2015" suggests, in our age of interconnectedness and globalization, there's nothing we can do, even at our best moments as social-justice-allied-fair-trading-human-rights-advocating-small-carbon-footprint-creating humans that doesn't negatively affect someone else in another corner of the globe, or even our own neighborhood. 

And that is SO DEPRESSING, right?

Massive national debt. A visibly shifting global climate. Unemployment. Rising housing costs. Gentrification. Children bringing guns to shoot their teachers and classmates in school. Abundant racism and structural violence against minorities. An ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. The list goes on.

I graduated university with a Bachelor's in Politics, and so for years I held a deep conviction that the answer to social change lay in policy reform and populist movements. Change the rules the privileged play by using the system, or change the system through grassroots activism (apathy remains greatest pet peeve amongst my peers - How can people just NOT care about the state of the world or their community? I will never understand...). Because I am passionate about cultural exchange, activism, and human rights, I believed studying Politics would lead me one day to a position within a NGO, embassy, or international development organization that would help people help themselves, or at the very least put me in a position to help indirectly redistribute the imbalance of wealth that plagues largely the global south. I knew my journey would begin with Peace Corps, but I didn't know where that journey would lead me.

Until now.

Peace Corps offered me many rich moments of clarity. Moments that shocked me, angered me, turned my conceptions of the world, the pretty theories I'd learned as a scholar at college, and my ideas of what was "right," upside down. I saw corruption first hand, and saw the shakedowns pass from the obesely privileged down to the poorest peasant granny. No one was immune. I saw presidential elections bought with cases of beer and free t-shirts. I struggled to reconcile the fragile morale of my students, who had so little faith in their own intelligence, that even my best and brightest thought they had to cheat or bribe their teachers to pass. And then I had to look my students in the eye everyday, and tell them they must fight for their education knowing full well that it very likely would lead them nowhere. I mourned the death of dear friends who died from completely preventable and horrible diseases. And for the first time in life, I knew what it felt to feel utterly helpless.

And I hated it.

Did I really want to become a development worker (foreign or domestic) who was stuck in some big city somewhere writing briefs and reports about a community I'd never met, making 10-100 times the wages of people I was supposed to be serving?

Or, did I want to have an actual practical skill that could visibly contribute to the betterment of health, wellness and education of a community in need?

When you put it like that, the answer becomes obvious. Clear.

My love of politics and public policy is real, but I know my place is on the ground, working hands on with people who policies fail to reach. As one of my most beloved professors' and life mentor in college reminded me, people have never been a number to me, they've always been personalities, faces, laughs, and feelings. They are characters who's stories have energized me, scolded me, and gentled me. It's the people who I miss most about Mozambique, and it's the people who have taught me that where I belong is where I am needed, nothing more, nothing less.

It was this clarity that solidified my transition into medicine and caused me to restart my career from scratch.


With seemingly impeccable timing, a hometown friend loaned me Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, a powerful narrative describing the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, a fierce global health advocate and one of the primary founders of the now well-known"Partners in Health" (PIH).
From its initiation in 1987 in response to health projects begun in Haiti, PIH has expanded across the globe, unrelentingly advocating health as a human right for all peoples.

Mozambique ranks #178 out of #187 on the United Nation's Human Development Index primarily due to the lack of access to medical care. So, it's not surprising that Mountains Beyond Mountains also offers one of the most concise analogies of the challenges met by global health workers. As Kidder writes during his visit to Haiti,

"I offered him [Dr. Paul Farmer] a slightly moist candy, a Life Saver from my pocket. He took it... and then went back to gazing. He was staring out at the impounded waters of the Artibonite. From here the amount of land the dam had drowned seemed vast. Still gazing, Farmer said, "To understand Russia, to understand Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Boston, identity politics, Sri Lanka, and Life Savers, you have to be on top of this hill." The list was clearly jocular. But I had the feeling he had said something important. This view of drowned farmland, the result of a dam that had made his patients some of the poorest of the poor, was a lens on the world. His lens. Look through it and you'd begin to see all the world's impoverished in their billions and the many linked causes of their misery. (44)

Oh, messy inteconnectedness! A decision made by a few leading to the destitution of millions.

Yet, despite all this, Dr. Farmer responds by treating one patient at a time.

This time, I believe I've chosen well.

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