Dignity, Guilt, and Google Maps

Since the last update, I’ve settled in the town of Mytilene on the island Lesvos to complete some volunteer work.

I purposefully booked my accommodation in Mytilene because it boasted a central location, pristine sea views, and plentiful terrace space. The pictures of the place confirmed that I’d indeed be able to drink a morning coffee while admiring the Turkish coastline; Google Maps confirmed that was a mere two kilometers from the town center. I finalized the reservation without hesitation. 

This is not another post about the existential distress I feel as a result of Airbnb (though an entire post could be dedicated to the complicated, often slum-like housing market that sprouted to accommodate the influx of short-term volunteers on Lesvos), instead this will be a post about dignity, about not checking the elevation change feature on Google Maps, and about guilt.

Where to begin? 

First, with a picture from the beach ~5 minutes from my home. The landmass near the horizon is Turkey.

Since winning the Watson, I knew that I would want to take time in each country for a bit of volunteer work. Growing up in the heyday of the ‘Cleveland Renaissance,’ I was indoctrinated to believe that places change when people change them, for better or for worse. I am not naive (nor arrogant) enough to think that a week or two of volunteering will profoundly alter a place that barely spend fortnight in, but I do see the importance of dedicating time, even if only a little, to a greater good. 

I am spending a little over two weeks volunteering with an organization that coordinates yoga and sport activities for refugees. All yoga takes place in the ‘Yoga Shed,’ a rectangular structure with an exposed frame of cylindrical metal pipes shaded with a tarp roof, while many of the sports take place in an old warehouse retrofitted with mismatched foam play mat tiles and handmade, plywood storage units for the clothes and equipment that are borrowed for each class. My role involves providing support to the long-term teachers here. Some days that means partaking in a women’s yoga class, other days a men’s muy thai, and, every so often, providing babysitting services so mothers may fully enjoy the experience of a class. One of the organization’s main goals is to dignify individuals who live under the indignant conditions of the camps here. Though I certainly prefer assisting with deep breathing to serving as a punching bag in muy thai, in each class I witness this goal being fulfilled as the number one rule (‘Have Fun’) is diligently obeyed. 

Any glance at the front page of a major newspaper will reveal a blindness to the indignity rampant in refugee camps (or detention centers in the US), but our reaction to an ill-fated diagnosis received by a loved one confirms that this blindness is only partial. Throughout my time here, I’ve come to believe that dignity is related to value, and that one of the greatest ways to help dignify another is through showing them that they are valued (certainly, the opinions and actions of others are not needed to cultivate a personal sense of dignity, though I believe they can be quite influential in doing so). Outside of the work done by NGOs, for refugees, the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy is, at best, only sloppily guaranteed—a direct reflection of how little they are valued in the eyes of the state. However, when a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, the inclination is often to drop everything and play our part in the epic drama of navigating medical institutions, coordinating treatment, and providing support. We show our belief in the other’s value by happily serving as a personal Uber, DoorDash, or TalkSpace service.   

The relationship between dignity and value helped to resolve a paradox that has emerged in my research. Many individuals in Greece have told me that a good death would be a sudden one, yet many more have also told me that it is important to ‘do everything to delay death.’ If the goal is to die suddenly, I’ve wondered why everything should be done to extend life. When I’ve probed as to why the sudden death is the preferable one, the answer has almost always been so as to avoid suffering. The rigors of treatments involved with ‘doing everything’ are seldom synonymous with alleviating suffering, ergo the paradox continues. After pondering this seeming incongruency, it occurred to me that ‘doing everything’ may be a way of showing someone they are valued. A way of affirming that their longevity should follow lockstep with the impact they’ve had on our hearts, even if it means undergoing treatments or procedures that assure against a sudden, or ‘good,’ death.  

Organizations involved with spreading awareness about palliative care often work to revise the notion that valuing an individual involves bestowing things with a perceived high value upon them (expensive treatments, endless tests, a myriad of consultations with all of the ‘best’ clinicians). Instead, these organizations promote the idea that individuals can also be valued when we do our best to preserve the things that they value. Some individual can, and do, value receiving intensive treatment to delay their illness, though many more place the greatest value on maintain a high quality of life, however that may be defined. 

Altering this perception of value may seem simple, intuitive even, but rewiring cultural thinking about value and dignity is a task rife with Sisyphusian frustration. At the end of the day, I think that most people simply want to believe that they did the best that they could to honor their loved one. For Greeks, I’ve often heard that many feel it is their duty to take care of their parents in old age as repayment for the care they were provided as a child. The dedication with which this duty is approached is truly astonishing—I’ve anecdotally heard of individuals who, for many years, paid meticulous attention to osentibly minute details such as room temperature to prevent the worsening of a parent’s condition.

A surefire recipe for languishing guilt is to agonize over whether you did ‘the best’ that you could to dignify another. To me, it seems natural and somewhat hopeful that this is a source of anxiety. Naturally, we all hope that our best was commensurate with the way we valued the other; hopefully, our agony is a sign of how deeply we wanted to communicate that value. Natural and hopeful as it may be, I recognize that languishing guilt is corrosive if held for too long. During my volunteer orientation, one of the experienced coordinators sternly instructed us ‘not to be guilty.’ Undoubtedly, this advice was a result of his own experience with the aftereffects of corrosive guilt. But, even with that advice in mind, in the face of this too-huge world confronted with the too-huge prospects of death and despair, we flounder, we bargain, and we feel immense amounts of guilt. We, or at least I, have the somewhat obsessive inclination to take measure of the uneven cosmic scale: he got cancer, she was born in a war-torn country, they tragically lost their mother; I am healthy, I was born in the US, I am at peace with those I’ve lost. How can this scale ever possibly near balance? 

It is precisely this sort of weighing that the advice to ‘not be guilty’ was targeted towards. Even still, it’s difficult to stop. Often as I walk home, I can’t help but indulge. Though the trip from the bus stop to my accommodation is indeed the promised two kilometers, what was not obvious at the time of booking (because I neglected to look at the terrain change) was a steep, 120-meter elevation gain during the last 800 meters of the walk. While I make my way up the hill—huffing, puffing, often needing to stop and catch my breath—I sometimes have the urge to run. The neighbors and stray cats watch this scene with great confusion: a young, very obviously not Greek girl, already dirtied from a day of sport, makes a beeline up the street whilst her bag thrashes against her back. They probably wonder what I’m doing and, to be honest, I wonder the same thing. Maybe this is my way of dealing with uneven cosmic scales, of trying to communicate the innate value I see in others, of trying to show that I am striving to do the best I can. Or, maybe, this is my way of grappling with not feeling guilty.

A view from the midway point of the hill, taken during one of my walks home in the evening.

I will be spending about one more week in Mytilene before heading back to Athens for a few weeks. In Athens, I will begin to tie up some of the loose ends of the research I’ve been conducting over the summer before partaking in a few festivals near the end of the month.

Tourists and Travelers; Voyeurs and Witnesses

I spent the first two weeks of my fellowship in Athens, Greece getting a feel for the country and the palliative care landscape. I interviewed at a funerary, was kindly given a tour of a palliative care unit, attended a healing circle, and have made a few friends who have gracious enough to show me the city through their eyes.  

During my interview for the Watson fellowship I was asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. The interviewer leaned back in her chair, then coyly posited, “Don’t you think your project is just a little voyeuristic?”

I remember feeling my face grow red as I thought, ‘Voyeuristic? Well, I am proposing a project that seeks to explore one of life’s most intimate moments… Is that voyeuristic? Oh god…’

She must have seen the panic wash over me, quickly offering that perhaps all of anthropology is just a little voyeuristic. I laughed, agreeing that anthropology may be a little voyeuristic, but clarified that I thought the attitude with which the work is an important indicator of its intrusiveness.

In the months following the interview, I thought often of that question, pondering the ways that I could ensure my actions were not voyeuristic. I posed this question to many people—academics, clinicians, peers—eventually concluding that it is both attitude and intention that decide whether someone is bearing witness or being voyeuristic. The former characterized by authentic, present participation, while the latter by selfish motives and/or being removed from the moment as it occurs. 

This question has been on my mind again as I’ve started to develop a feel for Athens. It’s a place that shouts at you. The graffiti found at every corner is an omnipotent reminder of the city’s pride, pain, and temperamentality. The blazing sun and nearly constant blue skies make no room for subtlety. Though I don’t always understand the graffiti, nor the chatter going on around me, I can often sense the passion with which it is delivered. 

The view from a street in the Plaka neighborhood

If you can’t understand a shout, does that make it a whisper?  An invitation to lean closer and open yourself to what may not be easily comprehended? 

I think it does, so I’ve been trying my best to listen carefully.

There are some messages that need not be deciphered—they shout with the intention of being understood. One such message confronted me from the moment that I went to check into my Airbnb: 

Later that evening I asked some local friends about the message, hoping to better understand the impact that Airbnb has had on their city. They explained to me that in the past few years units in neighborhoods close to the city center have been turned into ‘Airbnb Apartments,’ spaces where no Athenians live, but are instead only rented out to tourists. This, coupled with an increase in tourism to the city, has led to a rapid increase in the price of rentals. An increase so great that citizens are leaving the neighborhood where they may have longed resided or are being forced find new ways of making ends meet. 

After hearing this explanation, I was overtaken by guilt. Just two weeks into the year, I have realized that much of my project will be made possible by the willingness of strangers and places to open themselves to me. Athens and its people have been exceptionally willing, so it feels important to return the favor; important to leave a positive (or at the very least net neutral) mark on the city. Important to not be a voyeur. 

I confessed that I had unknowingly booked an ‘Airbnb apartment’ for my time in Athens. They reassured that it was okay since I was acting as a ‘traveler, not a tourist.’ Though their consolations were appreciated, I ended up switched my accommodation to clear my conscience of the negative contribution.

The distinction made between a traveler and a tourist reminded me of that between a voyeur and a witness. The traveler distinction had been bestowed upon me because, as it was explained, I was making an effort to venture outside of the area immediately surrounding the Acropolis, to engage with the city rather than merely visit the tourist attractions and was attempting to be self-aware in my actions. Crucially, I was making an effort to be here rather than just see all that is here. 

The traveler/tourist distinction also brings to mind something I often heard from the family members of the hospice patients I worked with. They spoke of how they were comforted by the ‘home-like feel’ of the place. Though the hospice certainly had many ‘home-like features,’ at its core it was still a place where care was to be provided to individuals—a purpose more typically attributed to a hospital than a home in contemporary US culture. The palpable difference in energy, in my opinion, was a result of the meticulous attention that was given to ensuring that each individual felt welcomed and care for (beyond just medically) during their stay. Individuals were travelers at the hospice house, not merely tourists in the medical world.  

When I asked a doctor last week what would be considered a ‘good death’ in Greece, she surprised me by answering that every death used to be a good death. She explained that individuals used to die at their homes, surrounding by those important in their life. If they needed to be cared for, it would have also been at their home and again would have involved the people most important to them. No tourism whatsoever. 

This has changed in the last ten years, however, with the decline in village/neighborhood life and flight of young people from the country in search of suitable work. More people are now dying in hospitals or away from their loved ones. Just as I am toeing the line between being a traveler and a tourist or a voyeur and a witness, a similar navigation is being performed by the medical community in defining the emerging field of palliative care.  

When given the choice (in literal or metaphorical journeys), I believe that most people would prefer to be a traveler rather than a tourist. So, I wonder, why is it the case that there so many tourists and so few travelers? 

I think perhaps it is because feeling a place requires an opening, and eventual breaking, of portion of your heart. To be a traveler in a place, to get to know it intimately and allow it to know you, demands that you make yourself susceptible to being changed by it. In my attempts to not be voyeuristic, I’ve been changed by experiences I’ve had shadowing clinicians in the States just as I have in the two short weeks I’ve spent in Greece. Bearing witness, whether it be to an individual suffering in an intensive care unit or to the hum of daily life in the Athens, is often when I feel the strength of our shared humanity most strongly and pain of life’s indiscriminate misfortunes most acutely. 

To borrow (and slightly alter) a quote by Maya Angelou, the price of being a traveler is high, but the reward is great. I’m paying the price in teary, indefinite street corner goodbyes and bouts of existential distress over realizations regarding just how much privilege the eagle on the front of my passport holds. Yet, the reward of being able to fully experience the beauty of this place and its people is immense. 

In the ephemeral spirit of the Watson fellowship, my travel plans have changed slightly. I’ve spent a few days enjoying the natural beauty of Meteora and was supposed to make my way towards the islands for some research. However, an opportunity opened on the mainland to further bolster my understanding of how the country’s palliative care field. Island life can wait a bit longer.  

On the precipice of being vaulted

Last Wednesday I said goodbye to my family in Ohio, then boarded a plane for Boston. Beyond the cost-savings associated with flying internationally out of Boston Logan versus Cleveland Hopkins, it felt right for Massachusetts to be the penultimate step before launching into my Watson Year. 

There is a certain degree of irony in this for me. It was only three years ago that I left my first year of Wellesley College after what felt like months under duress. Though I had made great friends—many of which remain my closest to this day—I spent the year feeling entirely disconnected from the environment around me. This feeling was so profound that there were often visceral pangs of not belonging…the same pangs that I now feel when thinking about the weekend bike rides I took on various paths in the Greater Boston area or the communities here that I’ve come to deeply know and love. 

Each time I’ve felt this way, a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has come to mind: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy adventure beneath the skies.” 

Bittersweet, inevitable, and largely uncertain, this feeling comes with no promise that you will be vaulted into a place where it becomes equally difficult to say goodbye.  

I believe the feeling described by Kerouac is a near opposite of what the social work researcher and author Brené Brown dubs as ‘the lonely feeling.’ (On the Road, Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone… There’s clearly been a theme in my recent reading). While I imagine Kerouac’s feeling to be partly a result of the sadness associated with leaving a place where you feel sustained, Brown explains that ‘the lonely feeling’ is one of disconnection to those around you, to the place that you are in, or to yourself.

I’d never thought much about being disconnected to self until I struggled in the aftermath of a torn ACL—often feeling like the body that I was now in was not that one that I had always known. Illness and injury have the ability to make all that was formerly tacit suddenly taxiing, while also altering the range of possibilities that may have perviously informed an individual’s way of life. My experience was not unique, in fact the philosopher Havi Carel has written an entire book entitled Phenomenology of Illness which explores how an individual’s body, values, and world can change in serious illness or injury. Essentially, she explains how our own bodies can come to feel unhomelike. 

Phenomenological thinking has also been used to describe the experience of grief. The beavered individual’s world is made unhomelike by the absence of someone that came to underpin so much of it. Time marches forward while everyday experiences take shape in unfamiliar ways. 

The remedy phenomenologists offer to this disconnection is a remaking of the individual’s world, a refamiliarization so that the taxing may once again become tacit. One of the most powerful ways in which this can occur is through a shifting of personal narrative. Many individuals have written much more eloquently and persuasively about this than I will here (if interested, Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller is a good starting point), but the crux of most of their arguments is that in telling and revising our stories we can reestablish connection to them, and therefore to ourselves as well.

As I type all of this, I am acutely aware of how my temperament, biases, and culture have made this way of thinking the one I identify with most. I tend to favor things that are analytic and explanative; theories that would receive credit if applied in a blue book examination. This has been challenged to a certain extent this year as I doubled down on my interest in zen meditation, but I’d be remised if I didn’t mention that a large part of my attraction to phenomenology is because, in my estimation, it intellectualizes many Buddhist and contemplative insights. 

In the ‘Getting it Right?’ guide supplied by the Watson Foundation they call on us to ‘find new truths that work for [us]’ through revisiting the assumptions, stories, and voices that guide us and trusting ourselves to ‘build new and resonate narratives.’ Beyond being open to the possibility of a changed perspective, I imagine that part of finding these new truths is accomplished through finding new ways to connect to place, people, and self. 

With the year officially beginning later this evening, I am both excited and apprehensive. I expect that there will be moments intense disconnection as the language I’m used to crafting my stories in is challenged. But I also expect that the process of revisiting and revising my worldview will lead to a depth of emotion, insight, and connection that is impossible to imagine now. 

I’ve said all of my goodbyes; I’m on the precipice of being vaulted. Time to lean forward to this crazy adventure.