While I am working here in Malawi, my fiancé is completing her nursing degree back in Canada. In just over a week, she’ll start her first placement, working in a long term care facility.
Naturally, I worry about the intensity of this type of situation. As a nurse you’re exposed to the type of bodily oozes that the rest of us avoid, significant physical and emotional pain, and often enough, death.
Before I left, I asked her, “How will you deal with all the poop and blood and everything?” (In the back of my mind I was imagining something far worse: having to bathe an old man).
Her response was quick and reassuring: “Well Jacob, there are these things called professional glasses. When you go to work, you put them on, and when you come home, you take them off.”
I have huge respect for everything that she is willing to do. I would be hesitant to step inside of a hospital ward in any kind of professional capacity. But in my work this week the image came back to me. Do I get professional glasses?
The National Youth Council manages a network of almost 200 organisations who work with youth in Malawi. We get quarterly reports from a lot of them, and this week my job was to go through a number of these reports and respond with feedback.
it sounds about as dry of a job as you can get (analyzing reports for a secretariat), but I found myself drawn in to the stories that they told*:
“We held a clinic and tested 60 youth for HIV. Eleven discovered that they were positive.”
“We didn’t get any funding and so we have no furniture, computers, or bicycles to travel around”
“We found out that women were being chased out of their houses by savings groups when they couldn’t pay back their micro-loans. Some turned to prostitution so they could pay back their loans without being ashamed.”
“A father beat his daughter with a large stick after accusing her of having a love affair”
I felt utterly inadequate to advise any of these organisations about the challenges they faced. How could I respond to “we couldn’t stop the child trafficking in our community because we didn’t get funds” or “our office was washed away by a flood”? I had to put on the professional glasses. I sat at my desk and from miles away and pointed out what they missed in their reports and advised them about our upcoming workshops and trainings.
But one report stood out:
“Uniformed police shot a youth over a land dispute. He needs dialysis now, but we don’t have the money to provide the bags.”
A picture below showed a skinny torso with shirt lifted to reveal two pinkish bags sprouting from the abdomen. I paused, the horror of the situation bleeding past my imaginary lenses. A name on a screen was again a real person. It took a while before I could start reading again.
But as I did, I saw these reports in a new light. While the professional glasses prevent heartbreak, they also dim points of brightness:
“We are using donated bicycles to run a taxi service that funds our organisation’s activities.”
“We got the whole community together to talk about peacefully settling disagreements- people were very receptive.”
“We taught teenagers to grow rice, women to start businesses, and children to read.”
“We made sure that the abuser was taken to justice.”
In the context of deep pain and brutal injustice, these victories took on new meaning. Like bright stars in a pitch black sky, they were points of hope and reference.
I know that I can never fully understand the pain that others go through. I know that I need distance to stay healthy and helpful. But I wonder whether the glasses metaphor isn’t right for this situation. Perhaps what I need is not a lens to block out the pain, but a rock to hold on to in the midst of it.
*For brevity and confidentiality, all quotes are paraphrased.