Sense vs. Sensitivity

June 12, 2011

A few days ago, a group of high school boys from Ireland arrived at the hostel. Their school annually chooses fifteenish boys to help build and repair schools in villages around Lusaka. Before arriving in Zambia, the boys raised around $100,000 for their cause. When they wander around the hostel, they’re just boys; they jump in the pool and play billiards, they strum their guitars and drink an absurd amount of cokes.

We don’t interact much (except for when I taught them bananagrams!), but when we do I am floored by their passion.

These teenagers come back every day from their work in the field completely changed. After working for one day, the boys were so struck by their experiences that they staged a minor mutiny: they refused to go to Lusaka’s only indoor mall to grocery shop after visiting the villages because the two locations were such stark departures from one another.

They each keep journals that they write in for hours. Every night, they have reflection. Some boys cry. They’ve all been affected.

Every time one of them comes to talk to me I am so inspired by the way they are drowning in their experiences. When they go into the field, all this poverty and disease and lack rains down and drenches them. Their shirts get soaked in it and the suffering gets between their toes. They might be able to dry it off if given enough of a break from it, but by the time the squelch has finally gotten out of their shoes, they’re back painting a school or helping revive a dilapidated playground. You can see it in their eyes: they jumped both feet first into this service trip and are moved by it beyond words.

I, on the other hand, have walked through this whole monsoon with an open umbrella.

Just a few years ago I was those boys. I used to become consumed by the cause. I used to feel guilty for wanting things while others lacked.

When I was a freshman in high school I watched Invisible Children in school. That day, I came home and sat with my dad and cried for hours, getting angry at everything from myself for being powerless to God for allowing such things to happen.

When I’d go to India, I’d lose sleep just thinking about the lives led by the children in the Sahara slum school where my sister taught. I would close my eyes at the sight of handicapped beggars but be haunted hours later by the memory.

Today, while Hugh told me about his guilt I couldn’t help but think about how despite this trip I still wanted the new Chloe perfume. I feel decades older and a thousand times less human.

My sensitivity to others’ suffering and my readiness to sympathize are two characteristics I’ve actually always prided myself on. But I guess I developed a hard outer shell at some point before this trip because I just don’t operate that way any more. I’ve learned so much, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not changed in more than a few ways, but I’m not that girl.

I still want to do development work, but I’m a bit embarrassed by how pragmatic I’m being about it. Throughout my time here, I’ve been all about getting the message out and brainstorming ways to make the organization work more efficiently. These boys have reminded me of the visceral side of development work, though; the illogical hemisphere that is so passionate that it obscures rationale, the simultaneous bright-eyed optimism and debilitating worry that makes service a bipolar disposition.

I think that it’s too late for me to be transformed back into that mindset on this trip at least, but I genuinely hope that these sixteen year-old boys from Ireland whose hearts are so big that they hurt never lose their desire to retaliate against a trip to the grocery store or cry after a day of doing good work.

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About Annu Subramanian

Annu Subramanian is an journalist, story collector, frequent re-reader, music lover and budding world traveler.
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3 Responses to Sense vs. Sensitivity

  1. Alka says:

    Beautiful. Your heart is as big as those teens from Ireland.

  2. Meena Pakala says:

    Dear Annu,

    You are a lovely and insightful young lady who sees life through beautiful eyes – “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. I would have titled this ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for you certainly have both to be able to appreciate the boys’ sensitivity and much more.

    Your writings make a wonderful reading.

    Meena Aunty
    (your dad’s friend from Charlotte, NC)

  3. Alan says:

    Absolutely beautiful

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