Between Suffering and Our Response

I was one of the 20 million viewers of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 film yesterday. If you follow my twitter or Facebook account you may have noticed that I was wrestling critically with certain aspects of the film as well as Invisible Children’s ideology. Aside from certain critiques or questions I have regarding our global responsibility and response to such atrocities and human rights violations as have been perpetuated by Joseph Kony and his rebel army (LRA), I am fascinated by Invisible Children’s ability to ignite a movement through social media. We live in a different era, an era where the capacity for exchanging information and opinions continues to increase day-by-day.

The rapid speed at which an idea can spread due to innovative uses and advancements in technology is remarkable and has been embraced as one of the great aspects of our time. However, as of lately, I have been pondering how the pace of this transfer of information might be influencing our style of relating and how we engage the world around us and beyond us. I wonder if the speed of information travel is contributing to a culture of reactionary impulsivity. There appears to be so little space between the introduction to a thought, an opinion, a fact, and our response, our critique, our action.

In the Kony 2012 film there is a segment that features Jason Russell’s (Invisible Children’s co-founder) first encounter with Jacob, a former LRA abducted child soldier. At a certain point Jacob begins to describe what he would say to his brother, who was brutally murdered by the LRA, if he had a chance to see him once again. Jacob begins to lose his composure and the sounds of a child who has seen and experienced something no child should ever experience are released from his young body and mouth. It is perhaps the most gut-wrenching and heart-breaking scene in the 29-minute film. His cries were almost physically painful to listen to, which is likely part of the reason why Jason response in this vulnerable and raw moment is to try to fix or quell the cries. He says what so many of us say to our own children when they experience any level of true pain, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” And shortly thereafter, he promises to try to find a way to stop Joseph Kony. To Jason’s credit, and the rest of the Invisible Children team, the genuineness of this desire to do something about the heartache they witnessed has been evident from the beginning of their efforts. But there is little space between Jacob’s outcry for the trauma and loss he had endured as a young Ugandan boy and the response from a 20-something white middle class American man.

As a therapist, a profession that requires me to enter into heartache with people, I am deeply aware of how difficult it is to sit with sorrow, to remain present to suffering that cannot be undone or taken away. To feel any level of powerlessness can be overwhelming. So often as human beings, we quickly try to leap over that feeling or existential crisis, to get to the other side of hope and human agency. But are we making that leap prematurely? Is there wisdom, perhaps, that we miss when we fail to suspend that all-too-human response? In the case of responding to the impact of war, trauma and suffering that has occurred in an entirely different cultural and historical context than our own, might it be wise to suspend our knee-jerk response to immediately swoop in and do something?

Back in January, I visited Gulu for the first time since my involvement with TCON began in 2006. The LRA actually left Uganda in 2006, so the Acholi region, where Gulu is located, is now recovering from over two decades of war. In the coming days TCON will be distributing our initial seed package to 30,000+ widows and single mothers impacted by this war. This seed package will serve to gain food security and to generate income to support herself and her children. In Uganda, the average woman has 6.8 children. My trip in January was for the purpose of planning and preparing for this massive distribution. Unexpectedly, I was afforded an opportunity to meet and interview four different young women who had all been abducted by the LRA when they were young girls. The trauma they experienced was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Though this encounter has grabbed ahold of my heart and mind in a life-altering way, I am not yet ready to share the details of my experience with these women. All I can say at this point is that I cannot walk away from their stories. As an organization we are attempting to suspend that common propensity to leap from our exposure to suffering, sorrow and great harm to the side of empowerment, action and hope. We are asking the question – How can we move into the heartache of these women to better understand how to walk along side them in their journey toward healing? It is a question that we hope propels us deeper into the complexities of the issues rather than away from the gut-wrenching and horrific nature of their trauma.

The idea is not to give in entirely to a sense of powerlessness and to throw our hands up in the air in defeat, but rather to sit in the complexity and brokenness long enough to gain further insight on how to respond. I am a white middle class American woman. That does not mean that I do not have anything to offer. But it does mean that I must let my Ugandan sisters (and brothers) inform my understanding of their stories. I am conversing and learning from the women and girls of Uganda about what they hope for and what they believe would be helpful. I am not their hero, nor am I their savior. But I am their sister, so I want to walk with them in this journey.

Despite the apparent quick and eager promise from Invisible Children’s co-founder to stop Joseph Kony and the LRA, I imagine that Invisible Children, as an organization, spent a substantial amount of time determining what course of action they believed was necessary. Whether I agree wholeheartedly with their mission or approach is not the point of this post. The blogosphere responses to this film have run the gamut, but it appears that the predominant response has been one of support. I hope that this response is not due to an unconscious drive to quell a sense of unease or discomfort with the exposure to this part of Uganda’s history. The reality is that these atrocities often take place throughout the developing world with little to no awareness by the US population. Perhaps the social media buzz regarding Invisible Children will compel more individuals and organizations to increase their knowledge of our global community and to ask the difficult questions that lie in that space between suffering and hope.