Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Self-Involved Humanitarian?

He saw a cottage with a double coach-house, 
A cottage of gentility! 
And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin Is
pride that apes humility.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Field work in conflict resolution tends to attract what my friend Holly calls 'doe-eyed people.' As projects differ from person to person, so do motivations. Some are in post-conflict communities to research them in the framework of academic study, others are teaching, yet others are providing an emergency response to disaster, and still others are affiliated with a non-profit or international organization. What the appeal is, what the initial draw was, and what the focus of the work will be may run a wide gamut, but a fairly consistent motif among such individuals is their curiosity and a sense of conviction about the cause to which they are devoting themselves. Intensities also vary – the spectrum runs from bleeding heart activists to skeptical researchers, from 'resume-padders' to those who have a life revelation and abandon proximity to mum, their dwindling relationship back home, and that Masters degree on the backburner to start their life anew in their post-conflict community of choice.

 A recurrent inner conflict as of late relates to how these individuals, myself included, think of themselves vis-à-vis their work. In addition to my own experiences with observer's guilt and the challenge of witnessing a perceived injustice and being unsure what, if anything one can do to rectify it, there is the added difficulty of striking a balance when talking to others about what you do and how you do it. How do you convey your passion and communicate your intrigue with facets of your work without condescending to others or assuming a 'holier-than-thou' tone I have come to resent in many ex-pats and fellow service workers? How do you fairly talk about the findings of your work and their impact without becoming self-involved? How do you personally navigate the balance between the satisfaction you derive from your work, be that the joy of giving or the thrill of learning, and a sense of duty to prioritize the community you are serving over your personal benefits?

In his musings on the duty of beneficence in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant suggested that charity and the provision of assistance to others lose their moral worth if performed out of self-interest, in order to make the person serving others feel happier or more charitable. This point resonates with me, as I have found that hearing others talk about their work in this field with a noticeable degree of self-indulgence virtually vacates the work of its meaning in my eyes. However, there is also very salient dissent, in that whatever one's personal motivations may be, one's service still ultimately benefits others who need it. As I meet more people, all of whom are impressive in their own right and driven by passion and dedication that I admire and at times envy, I am still working on navigating how to tell my own story with a balance of humility and enthusiasm and finding my own answer in the dilemma of where the self stands among the stories, plights and small victories of a post-conflict community.

1 comment:

  1. I think a good way to avoid that holier than thou tone is to accept that, yes, you're doing good work, but also that others can also do good work. Even if they are in sectors that are not 'in-your-face-save-the-world'. You never know what other things they may do, such as supporting charities, participating in their activities (to a more passive or active extent), being members of the board of a non for organisation, etc. Also, you should not underestimate the experience and value of the knowledge of other professions that for example may contribute to more effective institutional planning in post-conflict situations. I would say the most important thing is to look at the integrity of the person. There are a lot of different ways in which people can contribute to making the world a better a place, it does not always have to be done in the same way. Any sheep mentality will be detrimental in the long run for the dichotomies it eventially creates.

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