“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” — Zora Neale Hurston
In my late teens and through my mid-20s, I suffered. I was not malnourished. I was not a refugee. I was not sick. I was not abused, dehumanized, or even struggling to pay my bills. And yet I was anxious, depressed, and suicidal.
Everyone, including myself, jokes about “white people problems.” The idea being that for a select group in society, pain is manufactured and not real. In other words, privileged people do not know what genuine suffering is. And though there’s an element of truth in that, on the whole it’s a pretty faulty logic.
Whether you suffer because someone died or I suffer because of self-loathing, we both feel pain; it’s not a discriminatory emotion. And in my opinion, it’s these shared feelings that motivates some of us to give back and volunteer — to show compassion toward others.
I’m lucky that at this point in my life, I am no longer debilitated by fear or pain. I have done what I needed to do to get help. And part of that is helping others. My new year’s resolution for 2013 is to volunteer at least once a month and if I cannot do something in person, I must give money to an organization or someone in need.
I do this because I know what hopelessness feels like. If there’s one small thing I can do that reminds someone that they’re valued, cared about, or not alone, then I will have done something for my own mental wellbeing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, kind of like a karmic wheel: In doing for others, we do for ourselves.
I’m incredibly lucky to also work at a place that values helping others. Earlier this month, I was invited by the UN Foundation to participate in their social good fellowship program. The purpose of the fellowship is to educate bloggers and media on the various UN programs and efforts throughout the world. I met some incredible people, both bloggers, UN employees, and social good pioneers. The most impactful session was with Teddy Ruge, co-founder of Project Diaspora, an organization that mobilizes and engages members of the African Diaspora to help change the situation in their home communities. He taught us the difference between dignity and pity, and reminded us that how we, as writers, editors, and bloggers, shape public perception in our framing of a story. He encouraged us to stop framing stories on social good in a way that makes others take pity on those in need, and to find a way that highlights all the things we have in common. In other words, stop perpetuating the model of the “white savior” and start focusing on the individual’s story. Teddy used the example of social workers who pose for pictures in foreign countries with people they couldn’t even tell you the names of. Who are those people? If you don’t know them, why show them off?
Teddy also showed us a couple of amazing videos that put his points into perspective. This one shows how a little boy in Africa talking about an action film is no different from a little boy in America talking about the same thing, though their situations are certainly different:
And in this video, Africans poke fun at always being the ones “in need”:
Another highlight from the fellowship was a special advanced screening of the Sundance-backed documentary, The Revolutionary Optimists, which opens in select theaters on March 29th. The film follows a group of kids in the slums of India who work tirelessly to make their communities better with the help of their teacher, who empowers them to be leaders.
Teddy said something to the group that stood out to me: “What you’re going through is not unique. It is the human condition.”
What I didn’t realize, or what I didn’t want to accept as a young adult, is that suffering is living. It does not discriminate, single out, or choose its victims. It just is.
And what I understand now is that I’m not alone; this knowledge brings relief.
More from Dara on Babble:
- Connecting in the Middle of Nowhere: A Gringa’s First 2 Days in Patacancha, Peru
- A Crafty Way of Communicating: How I Bonded with Spanish-speaking Kids
- Dieting as a Child: How Losing Weight as a Kid Shaped My Life
- Kids, Diets, and Vogue: A Q&A with Author Dara-Lynn Weiss