On Feeling Helpless vs. Feeling Hopeless

I don’t talk about my work much here for a couple of reasons. Even most of my close friends are clueless about what I do and I like it that way most of the time. People who talk about their work are boring. And my work, although exciting sometimes, can also sometimes put me to sleep while I’m doing it. But to understand this post, you need to understand two things: I write for a living but I’m not a journalist, though the Kunstler Sozial Kasse has pigeonholed me as one. After having a loss of faith in my abilities as a writer a few years ago, I also started studying international human rights law. I thought that by becoming an expert on a topic that really affects me emotionally, I could maybe regain my faith in myself as a writer. Because I wanted to write stories that rose people’s awareness, changed people’s minds, and I felt like I needed to have the basic background information to do that.

I’m not so naive anymore.

For years I tried to make a living as a person writing on human rights issues. I’ve offered to write and edit reports, to write magazine features, to cover important conventions on transitional justice. And though some organizations and magazines have taken me up on these offers, for the most part, no one is willing to pay for my words or for the therapy I need regularly to deal with nightmares from some of the stories that I’ve heard. So I’ve had to turn to corporate communications to pay the bills, writing about fashion designers and computer programs and a million other things that I could give two fucks about. A waste of my time and expertise and talent, I’m told, but talent doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a messed up world when I can get paid more to write about clothing than about an Afghan woman struggling to get an education. And I don’t know if that’s the editor’s or the reader’s or the advertiser’s decision, I just know that it’s a position that’s conflicting to be in. Do what I love and feel is good or pay my rent and provide my daughter with a better life than the one I had as a kid?

These internal struggles that I’ve had for years become more and less acute depending on what I know and hear about happening in the world and most of the time, when it’s acute, it feels so bad because I feel helpless. Like I can’t do anything and whatever I do do, it won’t ever be enough.

When we flew into Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war, I was warned strictly against going outside the areas we were approved to be in. That meant no Bakaa Valley, no refugee camps, no Tripoli. I was not there for work but I listed online as a journalist, which could have meant trouble (as most English language journos in Germany know about from the Michael Scott Moore kidnapping case), and I had my daughter with me, and so, for the most part, I obeyed. We were there for a wedding and although I didn’t know this at the time, the bride came from one of the wealthiest families in the area. It wasn’t until I arrived and we were whisked away by their chauffeur that I realized how conspicuous our presence would be; we were told thereafter to be extremely careful so as not to be kidnapped. I got chauffeured around in a Mercedes, taken to luxurious Mediterranean beach resorts that were carved into the middle of banana plantations, places that required driving through Army checkpoints that left our driver a crying mess and through some of the poorest ghettos I have ever witnessed, to reach. We drove by the Holiday Inn on the Green Line that still bears the marks of decades-ago shelling and got rerouted because a crater from a car bomb just a few weeks earlier had made the road impassable. Never have I been so aware of the privilege I experienced through accident of birth and acquaintance. I may have grown up poor but I have never experienced poverty like this. I wasn’t naive enough to think that getting out of the car and handing out dollar bills or sweets and treats would do anything but ease my own mind about the poverty I was witnessing but what could I do? I felt totally helpless, a feeling that has ebbed and wained my entire life but which has, since then, not receded.

When I got back to Germany, I set out to write about these experiences. If editors didn’t want to buy the story about the reconstruction after the ethnic cleansing of my driver’s village (they didn’t), then maybe they would buy a story about six talented fashion designers from Beirut (they didn’t). They’ll publish 500 trend pieces on Paris Fashion Week but nope, sorry, not enough room for Lebanon. It’s okay. I already knew that. Words aren’t powerful in the face of disinterest. They aren’t the vehicles for positive change or awareness bringing that my grad school professors had tried convincing me they were.

Which is why what happened across Europe this week was so startling to me. I’ve been following the Syrian Civil War for five years now, been an expert on Afghanistan for seven. No one has given a shit for all these years. We have seen pictures of dead people in the Mediterranean for at least two years now and no one flinched. I was at a conference this summer which specifically addressed these wars and their consequences and watched Middle East experts begging for press and the world’s attention. Little came. I sat through panels addressing how the xenophobia and racism in the Balkans is once again reaching a boiling point, with one panelist saying the unsteady peace won’t last much longer, while for months at least, Balkans minorities keep turning up in Germany begging for asylum only to be deported quickly. I still haven’t read or heard about that in the media. I had a conversation with an expert on the to-remain-nameless-because-of-Google group currently rampaging across the former Mesopotamia that made me literally vomit and when I left this conference, for the first time in a while, I realized that the feeling of helplessness that I had when deciding to study human rights law has now shifted towards complete and utter hopelessness. I don’t want to be as disenchanted as this last expert, a former war reporter, is; his take on the world is that human beings are awful creatures undeserving of redemption. I don’t know how you can live with that kind of world view and yet I can absolutely understand based on his stories why he would say that.

For a second this week, my faith in humanity returned. Seeing some of those pictures brought tears to my eyes. I felt less hopeless and back to feeling merely helpless. Maybe that’s a start, I don’t know. It’s going to take a lot more weeks and months and years to reverse that last feeling and I’m hoping to continue to see this rising tide of immigration turn into a sea of positive change.  I’m trying not to be cynical about it. I’m trying hard not to make this about me. But I’m still a very long way from saying, as Liv Hambrett quite eloquently put it, that I am proud. Don’t get me wrong. What’s happening on the civilian level on the ground in Germany is wonderful and admirable. But as the saying in the development world goes, good intentions are not enough. I can’t wait to see the permanent change brought on by these actions. That’s the notion giving me hope at the moment.

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