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show me a hero and i’ll tell you a tragedy

April 22, 2011

herbert james draper's "lament for icarus"

Oh boy.  It’s been that week at school gang.  The week where everyone you see on campus is walking around mumbling to themselves, eyebrows furrowed, completely oblivious to everything around them, reciting a presentation or paper defense.  So I apologize (yet again) for being absent.  I had no less than five papers/presentations this week.  And I have yet to find the time management skills to be able to do that and do this.  And school pays the bills (and admittedly it’s wicked fun, and it’s what supplies some of the ideas and most of the foundation for the small amount of legitimacy present in any given post).

Also this week…a hero falls from grace.  I’m going to step away from data in this post…mostly.  By now you’ve probably, at the very least, caught wind of the whole “Three Cups of Tea/Greg Mortenson debacle.  I’m not going to break it down in tiny little pieces…there’s just too many different pieces and lots of people have already tackled it (Good Intentions are not enough is collecting posts…go check them out) and to be honest it’s feeling a bit beaten to death.  It’s unfortunate all around but at the same time it really is nothing new, and not entirely surprising…in many ways the story was somewhat too good to be true, and too cliche, to actually be true.  Go read this.  Most story telling should be taken with grains of salt…always.  And on that note what i am going to do, somewhat out of character, is direct you to a post on the subject that is outside of the geography/development community.  I’m a big fan of pretty much everything that goes on over at the rumpus and Steve Almond put together a really great article called “the heroic lie.”  It raises some really great and larger points about society in general but also I think some things that run rampant in the “aid” world.  Particularly early on.  I’m not an aid or development worker…I’m a student of development and aid…a worker in the making, at most.  But I think there’s a lot of correlation between the types of world travelers and the types of aid workers (and the mental state of both).  There’s aid/development workers and travelers of all shapes and sizes.  Some aid workers are like the grown up version of the hard core backpacking kids you run into when traveling…and by grown up I don’t mean any sort of change in maturity, merely age.  They’re jaded and self righteous, and yet maintain a fairly strong streak of righteous indignation…they also extoll stories upon anyone who happens to be hanging about the hostel (or bar or camp or anywhere really).  On the flip side there’s the kid who is just ridiculously optimistic and jumps full on into any and every project thrown at him with an innocence and zeal that is completely endearing at first…but after awhile the novelty of his naiveté starts to become tiresome and tedious and you’d like to shake him back to reality.  Some of them are just a fancy form of the traditional non-aid expat.  Some are academics looking for more purpose in their work.  Some are ex-soldiers.  Some are running from broken hearts or broken homes or midlife crises.  Most are some combination of these things and more.  Most also mean well, and have the best of intentions.  That’s not enough, as we’ve mentioned before, and can even be counterproductive at times.  But it is perhaps the hero complex that most blinds us to the realities of certain good intentioned choices.  No matter how much good we have done, and continue to do…one slip up, however small or insignificant to the larger picture, will always taint (to various extents) whatever good happened before and may happen after.  We are all human…and it would do well for us to remember this at times.  I mean this on a number of levels…we all make mistakes (but most of us do not lead public enough lives for the whole world to know when we make them), we are inclined to tell stories (true or untrue), there is some part of all of us that wants to be a hero, and we tend to make acquiring our trust incredibly difficult and losing it incredibly easy.  I say this to encourage a certain amount of room for forgiveness in those who slip up but also as a reminder to those of us still prone to starry-eyedness.

I do not defend what Mortenson did (and what exactly he did or did not do is still somewhat unclear).  It is possible his mistakes will do as much harm as all the previous good he did…it will echo and bounce around to many arenas…but I look to us to make sure that’s not the case.  Suspicion is acceptable, as is a certain amount of distrust…but not abandonment of the issues, condemnation of any good that has happened.  Two important takeaways…the ridiculously common “Battle of Bull Run” situation…where it seems as if all will be well and good and easy and we’ll kick ass so hard…only for it not to be the case.  It’s hard enough to implement successful projects in a community you’ve grown up in and are intimately familiar with, in a language that is your first.  Try doing that in a community where you’re not entirely familiar with the chain of command or with the under currents at work (and where, in many countries, outsiders are not supposed to know about any unseemly workings or traditions or going ons…for an amusing example of this I reference a passage from Iron and Silk wherein an American English teacher catches a rat and proceeds to present it to government officials at the urging of his class (they inform him there is a bounty on rats), only to have be declined because of China’s policy of denying the existence of these rats to foreigners), in a language that is not your first and that you are likely not even particularly fluent in, while you have stars in your eyes…and you have a sure fire Battle of Bull Run scenario on your hands.

Many of us who “know” are incredibly cynical and dubious and jaded…this is fine I think (to a certain extent)…so long as we don’t let it prevent us from learning and remaining open minded…cynicism and dubiousness are good bull shit filters (jadedness I can do without).  We all do our work out of the desire to help certainly…but rarely out of some unselfish, self sacrifice.  Let’s be honest, we do it because the work makes us feel good and gives our life purpose.  One needs to know this and be honest about it.  We get a lot of self satisfaction from helping people (or thinking we’re helping people).  There is nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s great that helping others makes us happy.  But it’s still about us.  And our own personal satisfaction.  And we are not better than the majority of people who pursue other avenues of happiness achievement.  My trips to Thailand and Southeast Asia to teach and to learn and to “help”…they are not sacrifices.  I enjoy them.  I come home and people say “Oh, it’s so great that you’re doing that, it’s such a great thing….” as if I’ve made some great sacrifice for the betterment of the world (and in their minds it’s entirely possible that simply living in a rural community in a foreign country is a sacrifice and could in no way be linked to any sort of personal happiness) and this always makes me uncomfortable…I am not a hero…yes I am doing it “for the kids” but I’m doing it “for the kids” because it makes me happy and I love it.  In the end it is in fact all about me.  It just so happens that in my case it being all about me requires it to be about them.  A moral convenience.  All of us, at some point, have fallen prey to the same bug that bit Mortenson…we have exaggerated or even completely fabricated stories to further our causes or to seek validation and compensate for feelings of failure or inadequacy…we have bitten off more than we could chew and floundered…been distracted by the stars in our eyes and the rose colored glasses and become ungrounded.  This does not excuse anything.  But serves as a good reminder for ourselves…of how easy and common and natural it is to get caught up in being a hero…there is an endless supply of Greg Mortensons.

one of chris hondros's more well known images of a liberian soldier.

And in a somewhat similar, though much more somber vein (I often think of the photographers and journalists of conflict and disaster to be the not so distant cousins of aid and development workers) we lost some really important folks this week.  They are certainly prey to the same cliches that aid workers are…but that does not change the importance or the visceral power of their work.  I would encourage you to take a look at some of it.  There’s a good collection from Chris Hondros here…though at times it’s a bit too “heroic” I do particularly appreciate his explanations of a few of his more famous images.  And if you haven’t yet seen “Restrepo” by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington I would encourage you to do so.

This is data month and this might seemingly have little to do with data.  But like it or not data is the backbone of all of this work, in one form or another.  Qualitative or quantitative.  It is what tells us whether our work is working…whether it’s making things “better” and in what ways…and in what ways it’s failing.  It is what allows us to do better.  And the “best” indexes and the “best” data are the ones that most closely reflect the on the ground realities, changes and stories.  And for many of us it is those experiences and those stories that matter…that’s why we do what we do…to make life as pleasant as it can possibly be for as many people as possible.  Albeit for our own personal happiness and satisfaction…a fact that we would do well to always keep in mind.

I’m not usually a quotes person.  Particularly not a famous writer quoter person.  But they are well put and I leave them not so much as inspiration or because they were said by famous people but more as food for thought in our own lives, and as reminders to constantly be checking ourselves…to think beyond the immediacy of the moment…of our own need to be remembered or to be the hero…caught up in our own ideas and idealism that we can’t see far enough ahead…these are the moments where we should pause and come back down to earth in order to be better, to do better work and to wipe away grandiose illusions (delusions?)…lest we become the next Greg Mortenson.

“The herds seek out the great, not for their seed, but for their influence and the great welcome them out of vanity or need.”  -Napoleon Bonaparte

“We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.”  -Chuck Palahniuk

“Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable.”  -Oliver Wendell Holmes




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