My work has been a fulfilling career. I know that things I have done make a difference in people’s lives. Nonetheless, my work is hard. I deal with the sadder parts of life, of suicide, of accidents, of war and disaster and all manner of human sorrow.
Today I spend several hours going through professional medical and social service literature seeking out information on the cost of caring, of what people who work to relieve the sorrow and suffering of others must give of themselves to do it. There is actually a large literature on the negative aspects of caring, of what is sometimes called Compassion Fatigue and on the positive aspects, sometimes called Compassion Satisfaction.
Amid all of the important and useful research papers I found a small reflection paper by Andrew S Nerlinger, MD. It was written based on his experiences as an aid worker in Pakistan after the earthquake of 2005. I had been scanning articles and chapters and looking at truly interesting research tables and charts. I had multiple articles queued up on my computer. When it came time to Nerlinger’s paper, I just happened to be reading from the bottom up and stopped dead in my tracks, transfixed by the story. I continued to read from the end toward the beginnig of the paper following the insights from digested to their origin. In Stranger in a Strange Land: Reflections on My First Medical Relief Mission.
In it I found understanding to add to mine, to increase my tolerance for the events of my life these pas 297 days since the fire. I found wisdom and insight, I found human suffering and pain and I found joy and humor. The short paper, only two pages, said more about understanding and being prepared to understand responding to large scale human pain, psychological and physical than is usually contained in days of training.
Before the earthquake, our camp had been the science high school for this small Northern Pakistani town nestled on the border of Punjab and Kashmir. A small secluded courtyard in the middle of the college was still beautiful, despite the surrounding destruction. In the silence of the early morning, I would walk alone through the courtyard as if it were a museum, looking into rooms exposed by ruined walls and a collapsed roof. With stunning similarity to the ruins of Pompeii, the little wooden desks and twisted metal bedframes that survived made it easy to imagine the lives the students had led. I recognized formulas scrawled on the chalkboard and read the elementary English penciled into a small black composition book. Although a new life pulsed outside the walls of the college, the immediacy of the past was a chilling reminder that this museum was merely three weeks old.
In the early 2000s my spouse and I traveled to an area in the Middle East to work with health professionals who found themselves in the middle of frightening and violent events as they tried to provide medical and psychological care to people who were suffering.
We were blessed to to live in a small and pleasant hotel where we had our own room with a full bath and a semblance of an air conditioner. In the evening people would gather in the hotel’s walled courtyard under ancient olive trees and eat dinner. The hotel restaurant was frequented not just by the humanitarian aid workers who lived there but by people who came for the quiet comradely of friends sitting under olive trees in the dark of the evening sharing stories and food. I remember the cold evenings that followed the baking hot days. Sometimes I was like a duck on the water, the top part of me that showed above the table calm and still while the lower part of me was shivering in the cold night air. The hotel had outdoor propane heaters that they would bring close to the tables as the evening closed in and the fingers of the desert reached in through the olive trees to remind us that we were in a protected and sheltered bubble in the middle of a struggle over power, land and water.
During the day we worked in areas where tanks had left behind them great mounds of concrete and pieces of cars and houses. The debris was sometimes scooped up and places strategically to prevent the free movement of people or traffic. This was done either by the people in the area as a protective barrier or by the people who not there using it as a means to keep those who were from leaving.
There was a surreal aspect to watching people carry their groceries and their babies, their briefcases and their cloaks walking through the great mounds of rubble as if it were not there. I know they knew it was there. I think they had to learn to walk on it as if it were the sidewalk in order to move from one part of their day to the next without falling down in sorrow.
Where ever we went there was a fine powdery dust that clung to every part of you. I could taste the acrid dirt and feel how it grew on my skin each day creating a shell even when I tried to wash it away. I needed that shell and washing it completely away might have made me fall to the ground in despair. The human spirit is strong but a strong spirit can also see what is before them. Sometimes a little padding between sorrow and living is life-giving.
We had not taken very many clothes with us so doing the wash was a daily task. We shared the duties but I was often the one doing the washing. I am sure I traded it for some chore that I liked less. I would wash our clothes and carefully ring them as dry as I could and then hang them strewn across the small bathroom. While there were clothes drying, which was nearly all the time, you had to dodge this way and that to be able to use the facilities or to bush your teeth.
In my mind I congratulated us for being able to keep our living quarters neat and having clean orderly clothes that showed respect when we went to the various medical facilities to visit with the people who worked there. After we left we flew through Paris. As we waited in the airport I decided to rinse out a few pieces of clothing so that we could continue our journey back to the Rockies with fresh clothing. When I rinsed out my thin trouser socks that I had put on fresh and clean that morning, I was shocked at how much dirt there was. I just stood in the bathroom in the Paris airport watching the water in wonderment as it swirled down the drain.
Now when we go camping in the mountains and have to haul our water or bring it from home I remember that pair of socks. I remember how important the water was and I am aware again of my expectations that the world will be like I expect it to be; that washing my socks will remove the dirt from them.
When we left our house as the fire bore down on us I realized just as we were pulling out of the driveway that my expectations were being challenged. I knew we were going to lose the house. As the hours and days passed before we could go back to our house and find that it had indeed burned to ash, I remembered those socks. As I think about it now when we were working to remove the twisted metal and sift through looking for any semblance of our lives among the rubble that we came back to our hotel each night so dirty we could not get clean. When I came in I would carefully pull my clothes off inside out and put them into a trash bag to be washed.
One of our first post-fire purchases was as set of dark blue towels. We were so dirty I was unwilling to use the hotel’s white ones. I knew they would never come clean. Each night I would take our rubber summer shoes and put them in the tub to soak. They always floated on the top resisting immersion to become clean. I would soak them going in periodically to stir the water and push them under the surface only for them to pop back up like little life rafts. After a while I would let the water out of the tub watching the impossibly dirty water swirl down the drain like it did Paris.
I often thought of trying to get that fine powdery dirt out of my hair, off my clothes and out of my shoes when I was trying to wash the ash out of my hair, off my clothes and out of my shoes.
It never occurred to me that what happened when our houses burned down was a disaster. It never occurred to me that a thousand people uprooted from their homes for days and hundreds returning to find that they had no homes was a disaster. It came into my consciousness when I we were having difficulty finding temporary housing one of the insurance people said, “it is always hard when there has been a disaster like this.”
The comment put me back on my heels. I understood sorrow. I understood my socks. I understood how important it is to build a life worth living among the ash. It made me realize how easily it could be done, and how remarkable the human spirit is.