Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Heart of the Matter

Over the past year I have learned a tough and sort of unfortunate lesson. I have learned that as a society we are often taught not to feel.

First, as I was searching for a major, I took some personality tests. When I had the tests interpreted, some jobs were suggested to me. The counselor told me that I would be well suited for being a social worker (among other jobs). I told her that I had thought about that, but I knew that I would always take my work home with me, and it would be pretty emotionally tough.

She replied, "They teach you how not to become attached and feel things so emotionally."

Later on in the year I experienced the lesson of learning not to feel again with the children that I work with. I work with kids that normally come from a bad part of town. Often, they have broken families or they have lost parents to jail or death. I only work with kids that are middle school and younger and already some of them have known more pain than I have. I used to (and still sometimes do) drive away from work in tears. I hurt for those kids.

I hurt because some of them have parents who regularly forget that their children are in the program and need to be picked up. I hurt because we have kids who cry in fear because they don't want to go home with the parent that comes to pick them up. I hurt because kids come to school in clothes and backpacks that are saturated with the smell cigarette smoke. I hurt because there are first and second graders who don't know the alphabet. I hurt because child protective services is often called. I hurt because sometimes I see them hurt. They are bright and little and vulnerable. Sometimes all I want to do is hug them and not let go.

As I share this hurt with people I am often told that I am doing a good job, and I should let it go. I shouldn't let it get to me too much.

This idea of not feeling too much came to a head this past week. I took an art history class this semester. It ended on Friday-thank God. This class was often difficult for me-the homework and papers weren't so bad; it was more the ideas and images that we discussed. Earlier in the semester we had been talking about different ideologies, and we looked at some lynching pictures. While all lynching photographs are horrifying and hard to look at, she showed one that moved me to tears while I was sitting in class. The professor warned us before every picture of a human being lynched, but she did not warn us about the picture of the elephant.

The photograph projected on the screen was of an elephant that had been lynched and was hanging from a noose tied onto a construction crane. The elephant was part of a circus, and its handler was awful to her. He abused her, and she trampled him. In order to save face and get back at the her, he lynched her and took a picture. He made the picture into post cards and sold it to circus goers. He nicknamed her "Murderous Mary". I was so horrified by this picture; the cruelty that man shows to animals is just unbelievable. I cried in class, and on the phone with my mom, and in the car with Nathan later that night. I was just in shock.

As the end of the semester rolled around, my art history professor passed the study guide for the final out to the class. A couple of nights before the test I brought up the study guide so that I could make sure there was nothing I needed to prepare for at the last minute. The final test was just an essay analysis of a photo that she would choose- she put the photos and brief descriptions of them online ahead of time so that we could prepare. As I scrolled through the pictures I was pretty unfazed. She had said that she was picking controversial pieces, but I thought most of them were just kind of weird. I was thinking that the test was going to be pretty easy if not full of mostly made up art historical analysis. However, one picture made the entire test seem like an emotional land mine.

One of the pictures that was fair game for the exam was a picture of a child and a vulture. The child was hunched over on the ground and the vulture was staring at her. The photo was titled "Famine Stricken Child in Sudan." The photograph was painful enough-the child was obviously dying, and the vulture obviously sensed that impending death.

The accompanying description was what really kicked me in the stomach. The photographer had traveled to Sudan to photograph the famine that had ensued from a rebel movement. When he got tired of photographing dying Sudanese people crowding around the feeding center, he wandered off into the bush looking for some relief. In the bush he saw a small girl who was crying and struggling to get to the feeding center; the description said she was whimpering. As he geared up to take her picture a vulture landed nearby. The photographer decided that the bird was a better shot and he then waited for twenty minutes to see if the bird would spread its wings.

As he waited the child continued to struggle.

When the bird did not open its wings, the photographer took the picture of it ominously approaching the child and then shooed it away. The description finishes by saying that, after he had shooed the bird away, the photographer resumed watching the girl's struggle. He didn't help her to the feeding center when he first saw her and he didn't help her after twenty plus minutes of watching her.

The combination of the picture and the description reduced me to sobs as I sat next to Nathan. He told me that the picture was awful, but I had to get my heart out of the matter and finish studying in order to push through the final.

Wouldn't you know it, the picture that I had to analyze for my final was the exact photo that had caused me so much pain the nights before.

Nathan was right, I did have to get my heart out of it long enough to write a dispassionate, objective, art historical analysis. However, as soon as I exited the classroom I called my mom and cried all the way back to my dorm room.

Maybe the photographer eventually helped the child, and that is what I am choosing to hope for.

The whole point of this entire post is that I am tired of being told to stop feeling. I think it is just dumb that anyone should be taught not to feel. Feelings are what make us human. Raw emotion is what assures us that we are alive.

The picture of the elephant and the child and the injustices that my kids at work face are harsh realities. If I don't feel these things, then will I really care that they are happening? What is the motivation to change the things that bring us pain if we turn off the pain that those things make us feel?

My tears are not futile. My pain and prayer over the things in life that are hard to experience is not in vain.

I will not stop feeling. My feelings make me who I am.

My feelings do not make me incapable. If they made me incapable then I would not have been able to put aside the tears and write the final.

 I would much rather cry over a million injustices and sadnesses than be unfazed by even one.

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