Thursday, April 9, 2009

one courageous group

The word courage arises from the old French work cuer, meaning heart. To be courageous means at bottom to be heartfelt. What I have come to understand in my time here is that if one understands courage when it comes to work, one will understand the Burmese and Thai way of life.

As you could likely tell from my first post about my experience here I did not have an easy emersion experience to this part of the world. The faces I attempted to read were unreadable and the first defense I typically encountered was denial. According to the people I interviewed there were no problems here; no crime, no domestic violence, no child exploitation – no problems, period. I may have been living with a community of displace Burmese who had been forced to flea their home country due to phenomenal human rights violations only to find themselves in a new country that was not that much more welcoming and frequently arrested people without cards and exploited vulnerables; there were no problems here, period, full stop.

I hate denial. Use humor, use minimization, use repression, use avoidance but please sweet Jesus don’t use outright denial. It’s an insult to you and it’s an insult to me and it enrages me. While accessing the human heart here felt downright impossible I knew everyone around me was in fact human and therefore I knew that, if only for that reason, they were also suffering. Accessing emotions took much more time and finesse than it had taken elsewhere, but with patience comes enlightenment.

Today Becki and I find ourselves at the tail end of a long week of training about mental health and trauma. When we started our participants didn’t know what mental health was, didn’t know what emotions were and didn’t know what counseling was.

I had a lot of work to do and until now I felt as if maybe they wouldn’t be able to do the work I was asking them to do. They were undimensional, flat, guarded, unenthusiastic and detached and it wasn’t clear if they wanted to be at the training, let alone engaging with me. Had I left on day 3 I would have continued to believe all those things and I would have been gravely mistaken. This group of individuals is not only none of those things, they are also very passionate about many things, including but not limited to helping their community.

Interestingly this community suffers from the exact opposite of what we suffer from in the West when it comes to work. Where our bodies can be present in our work while our hearts minds and imaginations can be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere, many people here seem to suffer from the exact opposite. Their bodies can be present in emotional affairs while their hearts minds and imaginations tend to be placed firmly in neutral or engaged in work. Work is everything, for good or for bad, it defines them. They are on time, they are conscientious and they are strategic to the core. Given we all tend to spend more hours at work then anywhere else, maybe they are more present than the most present poet or lover who has ever been.

While some may read what I just wrote and think the people I am speaking of are focused on the wrong things, I would respond by saying I think we need to take a closer look at work and our identity and how they are intimately linked. Once we have kindled our desire for something better in our work, we have immediately raised the stakes and although that can be profoundly terrifying it can also be deeply inspirational.

In taking our work seriously as an expression of our belonging, we hazard our most precious sometimes our seemingly most fragile hopes and dreams in a work that is more often than not associated with a hard and destructive bottom line.

Sitting here in this very simple, very primitive, very hot house I have begun to shiver due to an awful sense that I am suddenly about to play by different rules when it comes to work. If that ends up being true and I am able to remain present in my work for the long run I will need to thank my training participants and surrounding community for that.

If I am completely honest with myself my inner light of youthful imaginings about passion and feelings had been smothered by hard bitten adult notions of work. Work dominates our life in more ways than one and we need to work on preventing ourselves from one day looking back and realizing that our eyes were dimmed and our professional smile had been false and forced for more years than we would have liked to admit. Ultimately striking a balance between work and play is they most important thing we are ever asked to accomplish in the modern world. If I am able to do it, I will have my experience in Thailand & Burma to thank for it.

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