I was very sheltered growing up. That’s a fact, not at all a complaint. I’m very grateful for my childhood bubble. I attribute much of my outward success and inward health to my upbringing in a safe, beautiful, bountiful, and harmonious community (not to mention the compounding effect of being born to white, middle class, educated, and loving parents). Of course, I was aware of suffering in the world. I read The Economist and was troubled by human rights abuses, oppression, environmental degradation, and other ills. But I believed that if I studied hard, I could be someone and do something about these things to make them better. That sense of agency made me optimistic instead of distressed by world events.
So I studied hard. When I showed up in Washington, D.C. to be a congressional staffer, I believed I was finally going to use my international relations degrees to do some good in the world. I worked hard. I slept next to my Blackberry, took very few days off, and did believe I was making a small, but meaningful, difference.
Then I stepped away from international affairs to go to law school. Once I “zoomed out” on the world’s troubles, it quickly became clear that I had not had any real impact on those issues I had been devoted to for years of my life. Defeated, I surrendered my focus to worries that were more close-at-hand (law school was hard!). When I was pregnant with my first child, news of the world – especially when accompanied by visuals of tragedy or hardship – was disturbing. So that global issues would not keep me up at night, I began actively avoiding bad news. I cancelled my subscription to The Economist and would look away from graphic newspaper covers or broadcasts.
As a new mom, I was proud that I could give my children a sheltered environment, like the one I’d grown up in. My husband and I have always spoken with them about inequality, poverty, racism/hate, respect for the environment, and other topics we believe are essential for our children to become good global citizens. We have traveled with them to Austria, Cambodia, Mexico, Hungary, and South Africa, and try to teach them to respect other cultures and to feel grateful for all they have.
As I explained in my last post, in an effort to return to my youthful vision of doing something to make things better, I decided to leave my comfortable job for a career that seemed more meaningful. Now that I am a diplomat, however, I can no longer distance myself from the many problems besieging our planet and its human population (I realize animals are also in peril, but that’s not my area of expertise). Rather than turn away from disturbing reports, it is now my job to investigate them. Even worse, I have chosen to pull my family out of our bubble of security. Some days the weight of what I have undertaken feels like too much to bear. The troubles of the world, along with the petty worries of my family, press on my heart until I feel like I can’t breathe.
Maybe it’s because I was so sheltered as a child. Perhaps I am just a sensitive person by nature. It’s possible that years of looking away from global problems make them seem all the more overwhelming now that they are in my face. Very likely, the thought of these things impacting my own children make them feel more personal and painful. Lucky for me, I am not trying to change the world on my own. Like the lowly Senate staffer, I am just a cog in a powerful machine, doing my part in a little corner of this Earth. Deep down, I am still an optimist who believes we each can make a difference. But doing good requires being uneasy, stepping out of my comfort zone and facing those truths I would rather not see.
My children will not enjoy the same bucolic bubble that I grew up in. I expect I will regret and apologize for that many times in the months and years to come. Still, I hope that I can give them something even more precious to cherish as they someday venture out on their own: a clear-sighted view of the world and their powerful place within it. None of us has to carry the weight of the world on our own, but we each must bear our share of responsibility for the Earth and its contents. This takes more than recycling, donating to charity, and lamenting current events at happy hour. It requires bursting our comfortable bubbles and walking out in the world. Here I go, one step at a time . . .