On being a weepy mess; Compassion hurts

I have been away this last few weeks in South East Asia. My day job takes me all over the place where I visit the organisations our agency partners with and see their projects, hear their stories and get a glimpse into their lives and cultures.

I love my job, the work, the people, the places, the hope that is generated, the changes we are seeing. I love how it better informs the work we do through a Girl & her world. But for whatever reason this time I came away a weepy mess, it felt/feels a bit like grief.

Maybe I’ve reached saturation point? Maybe some stories are harder to hear than others.

The Fiji Islands were my introduction to international development. I started working for the Fiji Red Cross Society in 2004 and will never forget my first authentic experience of deep sadness and helplessness at encountering poverty. It threw me in so many ways, such a lush beautiful place shouldn’t be hiding this kind of pain, it was like the two things couldn’t exist together.

We visited a young man robbed of his youth, his body awfully infected rendering him paralysed. He couldn’t walk or feed or look after himself and his family were too poor to do anything about it. The public hospital had sent him home with a mystery diagnosis and he was depressed, waiting out his days, assuming that he would soon die. [You can read the full story in my ebook Behind the Smiles]

On entering their humble home the smell of rancid flesh hit my gag reflex and yet I managed to sit with him and smile, showing him some photos I had just taken of his cousins while our group spoke with his family. His mother lifted the sheet lying over his naked body and we could see his bones through the gaping holes in his backside. The family was distraught, it was distressing to say the least. This particular story ended well and he fully recovered thanks to the tenacity of one of my colleagues, but in the days following I found it difficult to string a sentence together, cried a lot and tried to make sense of it all.

Advocacy and an adequate health care system would have picked up his condition straight away and proper treatment would have prevented so much heartache. Social workers or counsellors within this system would have known how to support the family emotionally and brought them in to a network to help them manage the process of recovery, financially and practically.

Other more existential questions haunted me; why was he born here in this time and place and yet because of the birth lottery I have so much? Where is the fairness, where is the justice, why is there so much inequality in the world???? It felt like survivor’s guilt.

Having a hyper-developed sense of empathy has also never served me well in settings like these and so I felt everything I saw and connected deeply particularly with his mother’s pain and helplessness.

Over the years working in this sector I have learned not to cry as much or feel as deeply. It’s a coping mechanism I suppose.

I didn’t deserve the privilege I was born into, however imperfect and others don’t deserve the hell they have had to walk through, though I have learnt to make a sort of uneasy peace with this now, straddling the parallel lives I lead.

As I used to say to my kids ‘You have to be just as comfortable sitting under the mango tree in the village as you are in a Sydney café’ Yet it sometimes still feels odd, still jars me.

This recent trip was heart wrenching. It wasn’t like I haven’t seen fungal infections under the finger nails of kids without clean water before, I have. It wasn’t that I haven’t heard personal stories of violence and fear and genocide before, I have. But for some reason sitting with people seeing and hearing these things again, again, brought me undone.

FullSizeRenderIt’s been a big year, at work we are walking through the aftermath of the devastation wrought by a Category 5 cyclone with our partners in Vanuatu, we are working closely with our partners in Papua New Guinea to address the brutal intimate partner violence that takes place there and, we have more girls on our waiting list to join the a Girl & her world program in Fiji than we’ve ever had. The need, the pain, the struggle is relentless.

So perhaps I’m just tired, or, perhaps I had grown too accustomed to this reality on a cognitive level and needed to feel it again in my guts, that visceral grief that motivates the hardest hearts to engage.

When recounting a story from my trip to my 18 year old the night I got back, she said, Ah mum I wasn’t quite ready for that, I just wanted to watch the Bachelor and laugh. Right, noted, it’s not normal to casually mention these experiences to people who don’t work in developing countries. So again I need to readjust the way I live in my own world, while working in the world of others. We’re always learning.

Many an aid and development worker has lost their faith in God and humanity doing this work and I wonder if this is the same reason everyday mums, accountants, salespeople and office workers don’t engage as they could with international issues – it’s too overwhelming, too big, too devastating and just too damn sad. I guess the question is how can I really make any difference to a problem like that? So rather than depress myself, I won’t engage beyond supporting my kid’s friend to do the 40 hour famine or giving $50 to a Christmas appeal. And I totally get that, as I’ve pointed out, I can clear a room talking about this stuff and often dream about living in a field of lavender in the south of France to find reprieve.

The thing is, there are 60million displaced people in the world at the moment. The UN High Commission for Refugees says this number hasn’t been as high since WWII. There is conflict, genocide, disease and inequality right on our doorstep and there’s no insulating ourselves from it.

We have to engage. We have to understand our nation’s policies on international aid, refugees and asylum seekers as our society becomes more and more multicultural, multi faith and diverse.

If we want to remain a peaceful nation we have to engage. But we have to find a way of growing ‘strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors’

A friend commented on one of my Instagram photos that she would love to meet some of the jewels whose stories I hear. More and more these jewels will soon be living across the street, with different experiences of trauma and poverty, different expressions of faith and culture. We have to grow strong enough.

Sometimes I feel like this work takes a piece of my soul, but it also means I can be true to my own heartache and struggles, I can recognise that everyone shares in the human experience, that full spectrum of emotions…that’s it’s ok to cry with people like I did this week on learning that the beautiful, serene woman in front of me was kidnapped as a child for 16 years, yet has had her life transformed through peace and forgiveness as an adult.

IMG_5537I may not have had her same life experience but we have both known sadness (haven’t we all?) and perhaps we both just needed a good cry, the world is a harsh place while it is also beautiful and wonderful.

I came away stronger, inspired by her resilience and ability to serve others to bring about her own complete healing.

I think in the west we are afraid of emotion, we are afraid that if we scratch at the surface even a little that we will unearth a tirade of grief at how things should have been different for us, times we were wronged, hurt or betrayed. And so we package up our pain and put makeup on, and answer ‘fine’ whenever we are asked how we are. There is no real space given for honesty and authentic conversation.

I also think this is changing, which is why I have been so vulnerable here. It’s why when given the opportunity to grieve collectively, we fill Martin Pl Sydney with flowers for two of our own killed too close to home. It’s why we give so generously to disasters and tear up at the stories, because it’s out there in the public space and we’re allowed to, for however brief a moment.

In closing, I’m not sure what I’ll do with this particular ache in my guts. I know a good first step will be our debriefing service next week. But I’m not fighting it, just feeling it and letting it be.


This morning I went for a wander in the sunshine through our local organic markets and became giddy at the abundance and variety of the beautiful produce available.

My overwhelming response was gratitude.

Love you to share your experiences of how you process emotion, whether your own or managing the pain of others in your world, we have to grow strong enough…


Jane for team ‘a Girl & her world’

*Pics belong to UnitingWorld


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