I wrote this shortly after I moved to Amajuba. As I was struggling to integrate and at a loss for amaZulu cultural topics, I used my psychology background to reflect on human behavior. I still struggle to connect with the PCV community at my post and after gaining permission from the Mozambique girl, decided to share this article. Maybe my lesson gained will benefit someone else. Even though my college’s saying is actually “in the stew,” the message is still relevant.
Also Brene Brown’s work on empathy and vulnerability got me through college and currently maintains my sanity. If you are curious about the practice of empathy, here is a heartwarming animation of one of her talks.
The phenomenal counseling department at my alma mater describes empathy as being “in the soup” with someone. “In the soup” means a variety of adages, “meeting people where they are at” is my favorite, but essentially it is providing a safe place for emotional catharsis through reflective listening. Being “in the soup” is the epitome of vulnerability. It is not fun or convenient (who would want to be covered in any soup especially on a day when you emotionally feel like crap) and like soup it is easy to make mistakes. Will your approach with the person heat up like a gazpacho with an unpalatable intensity or shut them down like a cooled chicken noodle neglected on the counter? We live in an intimating world with no Goldilocks guarantee with human beings, where we are in the “just the right” emotional state all the time and empathy is flawless.
Recently another member of SA 31 involuntarily joined the site-change-in-the-middle-of-service-club, and I asked how their interactions with the cohort have been. The reply that was they have not talked about this the cohort much because everyone has problems. This point was valid and it is a challenge. How much support is too much to ask for within the PCV community, where everyone struggles as living in an unfamiliar country with limited infrastructure is hard full stop? Honestly, I have not found a comfortable middle ground in honestly sharing my experience with the cohort and not overwhelming other PCVs. I am now intimidated to talk about the new site, and wish that I could simply express my thoughts without fears of judgement or evaluations of how I am integrating. These challenges make times when another PCV is empathetic especially meaningful and less stressful when the balance is set.
The Mozambique girl and I met when we were exchange students in Botswana. We both had challenging application processes but now she is a PCV in Mozambique! PST is an intense time for any PCV, and with this realization I tried to keep my emotional upheaval away from her experience. One weekend in Pretoria, I had a crappy day and Mozambique girl What’s apped me to check in. I dumped my frustration on her and held my breath to see the response. Instead of judging my approach or attitude, she simply let me vent and acknowledged that my situation sucks.
During a Sunday laundry session, I thought about the above conversations and it hit me; empathy is a choice. We can have automatic emotions when a loved one is in pain, but being supportive is a choice. We volunteer to step out of our comfort zone and subject ourselves to a situation that could “bring us down” because it is depressing with there is no fix. Everyone always has emotional baggage in their life. Seldom is empathizing with someone convenient, which is why the effort to be “in the soup” with someone is so meaningful. Empathy takes thought and practice, because it is individualized, means becoming vulnerable and willing to be checked.Empathy is not about our validation as “good people.” The person in pain is the ultimate decider of whether or not you are being supportive. Also, pain takes time, and the choice to be empathetic also means being along for the entire process. Grief for example, is a lifelong pain and people do not “get over” loss.
Any of us are capable of being empathetic, but it involves a decision that our relationships with other people outweigh our pain. In the middle of her PST, Mozambique girl was willing to enter into my unaesthetically pleasing service in South Africa. Peace Corps is in many ways a microcosm of life. All PCVs will be occupied with our own challenges and stressors, but we are still capable of balancing self-care, supporting our communities, and being there for other PCVs. It is intimidating because PCVs come from all different backgrounds, diversities, and we are constantly subjected to stress. In other words, we are Americans with a unique work context. You do not have to be directly impacted by a cause or even like the person to display empathy. Yet the option is there if you want to let another person they are not alone.
Unless there is another 23 year old, autistic, anxious, female and white PCV/public health graduate student in the Amajuba district of South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal province, I do not expect you to walk in my stinky, size 10, wide shoes. It is impossible for you to understand my experiences fully and because I interpret things literally, popular shtick like “be positive” and war analogies actually make me more distressed. I am admittedly a hard person to support. However simply listening to my thoughts, and trying to be in my “soup” gives me validation. As my thoughts on empathy evolve, I want to challenge this community to think about empathy in their own lives. The more we choose empathy, the less intimidation people will feel with asking for help and sharing their vulnerable experiences.
All the best,