(Disclaimer: the following is a post centered around my own personal experiences and reflections. Any definitive statements are only worded as such because they save space, and may thus be treated as entirely anecdotal and subjective)
What the readership must know before reading the Blog:
I am Zachary, and I am interning with an organization called RMMRU in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Welcome back, dear readership!
Here’s a thing I think about sometimes: why do people do awful things? Imagine the most awful things done by people. Now try to imagine the thoughts that they used to propel those actions. Maybe each of them had a few ‘crossroads moments,’ or points in time when a certain thought – of empathy, of sympathy, of humanity – might have turned them around from their destructive or abusive path.
The reason I bring this topic up is not to provide a general answer or explanation. In fact, I don’t believe anyone will ever be capable of performing such a feat in this case – the question at hand is far too abstract, and one would have a difficult time addressing the myriad specific contexts in which people have done despicable things (see: every human context we know about). As well, despite numerous human endeavours, the minds of other people remain a ‘final frontier’ of sorts, a vast unexplored territory that we can only wonder and speculate about.
So, what we’ve got – what this blog is about – is a big, abstract, and silly question that I cannot answer in any general sort of way. However, because I have (at least partial) access to one mind (my own), I think I can distill the question down to a level that might be an interesting starting point for a discussion I believe is quite important. Maybe, hearing my story, you (the readers) might be able to compare my struggles and lessons with some that happened in your own lives. All I’m going to say “here is how I relate to the question,” and hopefully everybody reading this (I’m looking at you, mom) will traipse off on their own wonderful thought-journeys of self-exploration. Or, perhaps more likely, you will view this blog as evidence of the combined negative effects of too much coffee and too little beer. I surrender to either judgement.
Ok, so lengthy preamble concluded – check. Now that we’ve lost half our readership (still looking at you, mom), I will relate the tale of fateful misfortunes that began for me on 28 July 2016.
Trauma #1 – I Lose Our Laptops (July 28)
Here’s the gist: I lose both mine and Joel’s laptops in a CNG. It’s my fault, I hate myself, and I can’t do anything about it, because they’re long gone. Furthermore, I lose a bunch of documents that we’d been working on for our host organization, RMMRU, erasing completely about a week’s worth of work (side-lesson: dropbox is our friend).
Response – Reflections from the Fetal Position (July 28-31)
One needs to have a couch when they are depressed. A variation of prone environments becomes highly desirable, as reclining pitifully in bed all day makes sleep somewhat less attractive. As a result, the (decidedly abrasive) wooden couch in our apartment took on a bigger role in my life.
“It’s going to be OK,” I tell myself during these days. “In thirteen months, I will be busy with other things and I will not think about this all that often.”
As I deal with the hard stuff, I noticeably lose patience with my surroundings. I feel less able to handle the challenges of Dhaka City, and I empathize/sympathize less with the people I encounter in daily life. Objectively speaking, there’s no good reason for this. Dhaka is the same as it was when I was maintaining a positive/hopeful attitude, and the people around me are certainly no less interesting or worthy of my attention than they were before. And yet, there’s this obvious power that fear holds over our perceptions; it taints everything. I feel threatened; therefore, I have no energy for anybody else’s problems. I’m sure we’ve all had this experience. I think it’s a natural, ‘fight-or-flight’ response to an unfriendly environment. The funny thing is that, by this process, in order to address an unfriendly environment, I myself become unfriendly. This is where a little bit of reflection came in handy for me.
I want to be clear, here. I was not Mr. Reflective right away when this realization hit me. My condition of curled-up, self-hugging sadness instead made me more like Mr. Reflexive: weak, easily frustrated, and unwilling to self-examine.
Trauma #2 – Trip to do RMMRU Fieldwork Goes Awry (Aug 1-3)
Now, take the mental state that I described above, mix in a 12-hour overnight bus ride to Teknaf, a town in Bangladesh’s southeastern corner, and finish it off with a heavy dose of being told we’re not allowed to be there and must return to Dhaka at once, via another 12-hour night bus.
The above ellipsis is the only thing I can make with my keyboard that comes close to describing the potency of this moment.
To be honest, I’m not sure of the local officials’ exact reasoning for rejecting our right to stay and work in Teknaf, but it’s not really relevant to this discussion. What matters is that I was angry – angry at them, angry at Bangladesh, and just angry at the world in the abstract. Again, Mr. Reflexive needs neither reason nor self-examination.
Response – Losing My Sense of Beauty
This is one of those ‘crossroads moments’ that I described before. This was my chance: if I ever was going to hate my surroundings, this was it. All of the beauty I had witnessed in the prior two months – and all of the complexity that eludes my perception – I was going to lose this to a self-centered reaction to frustration and discomfort. This would represent tragic loss of perspective for me, but I shudder to think of the long-term effect this could have upon my words and actions.
Full disclosure: I did lose my sense of beauty for a few days. I lost a lot of my empathy, too, and I stopped caring about the nuanced, complicated picture of the real Bangladesh. It became very easy to simplify my surroundings to easy quarter-truths that matched my angry narrative. I don’t think this type of reaction is unnatural or avoidable. I’m also not saying it’s natural or unavoidable either, I simply state that it happened; it was something I was forced to deal with. High levels of emotion overwhelmed my sensual and intellectual capacities. These were times when it seemed somehow easier to project my frustration onto my surroundings, and, in so doing, put space between others and myself.
These moments are what led me to ask the question at the start of this blog. In this space of horrid self-centeredness, I had this thought: these are the kinds of headspaces that allow people to do bad, destructive things. I became emotional – afraid, frustrated, despairing – and my own need for emotional resolution threatened to outweigh the needs of those around me.
In this way, I wonder, do people transition from bewildered frustration into reductive simplifications that make the pain easier, and from there logically proceed to something worse? Again, I don’t have the answer, but it sure felt like it could have gone that way for me had I not taken time to reflect what it was my thoughts were actually doing.
Final Thoughts and Hindsight
I’m being a little dramatic again. I never hated my surroundings, and, while I harbored some resentment for the world around me, I think I was able to re-stabilize and get back my perspective before anything bad happened. That being said, this emotional low-point underlined what I think will be one of the key lessons of my time in Bangladesh: it tested my capacity and commitment to love.
My background – my personal set of ideals and assumptions – centers around a sort of liberal humanism (don’t worry, I’m not fully certain of what that means either). Who I want to be, and how I want to respond to the world, is generally based on the assumption that we (humans, earthlings, etc.) are all in this together, that we’re responsible for each other, that everybody – of all sexual orientations, creeds, genders, and ethnicities – deserves equal and just treatment.
But those views do not work without a commitment to actively loving other people, and that commitment can be challenged when one feels disorientated, alone, and afraid, as I often felt during the week of laptop and bus-ride troubles. I lost a little bit of my capacity to love, even if only temporarily. All kinds of dangerous and harmful attitudes threatened to come into my life.
The way out, for me, was to block out some of the noise and reduce the inner turmoil to a bunch of simple decisions all based around the same question: do I want to go in the direction of hate and fear, or do I want to go where I think healing, love, and acceptance might be?
It took a few days, but it ended up giving me some peace of mind. Of course, there was never any doubt that I would recover. It was a lost laptop, and a three-day trip gone wrong. These are not things that were ever going to derail my life. But what was illuminating about the experience was the glimpse I got of that ‘crossroads moment,’ of that time where resentment, selfishness, and negativity seem to be more feasible alternatives than they normally would be.
My goal in sharing this experience was, as honestly as possible, to share the internal tumult that I underwent, along with the things that helped me get past it, so that anyone reading this might reflect on similar ‘crossroads moments’ in their own lives. As well, anyone who might be headed to – or engaged in – similar cross-borders experiences might, I hope, use my little tale as a launching point for their own reflections.