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. 

Goodbyes

The past few weeks of my life have been filled with goodbyes. A necessary part of graduation, each farewell serves as a reminder that my time in the place that I’ve come to know as home now exists in the form of memories and monthly checks to a student loans servicer. Many of these goodbyes have come with a gift that has inevitably fallen into one of three categories: (1) mementos of a shared experience, (2) travel-inspired gifts meant to welcome my coming year, or (3) books about death and dying. An interesting amalgam of my past and future, each gift is a reminder that this chapter is closing while the next is beginning and yet, somewhat paradoxically, the two will be linked by what usually characterizes a final chapter: death. 

Perhaps a bit more explanation is needed to justify what may seem like an otherwise macabre connection. As a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, I’ll be spending one calendar year outside of the United States while pursuing my project, “Dispatches from Death: Exploring How We Die.” Broadly, my project is concerned with the concept of ‘dignified death’ and how it comes to be defined by individuals and medical communities. Topics such access to and provisioning of care at the end of life, meaning-making in serious illness, and the influence of culture/religion/ritual in shaping views about death and dignity all fall under the purview of my project (of which you can read more about here).

My year will officially begin on July 1 when I board a one-way flight to Greece. For now, I’m trying to strike the balance between making plans for the year and allowing it to unfold naturally. One of the gifts that I received (which falls under the category of ‘Travel-Inspired’) reminds that finding the delicate equilibrium between the two will likely be an ongoing challenge. A deck of 75 cards that promises to help “discover the unexpected, wherever your journey leads,” it is designed to make you more appreciative of your surroundings through literal reminders to stop and smell the roses. While shuffling through the cards, I thought that perhaps I should try to guide my days by them, using each as a directive to ensure that I appreciate all of my time. I sometimes fear that the lack of normalcy caused by a year of travel will shift my focus towards attaining a sense of familiarity rather than enjoying the present, so the cards promised the perfect antidote. My momentary resolve was quickly dashed by the realization that I only have enough cards to live every 4.867 days by each one and while intentionally getting lost for one day might be nice, wandering aimlessly for 4.867 days is likely overkill. 

I think my compulsion towards the cards runs deeper than a mere desire to appreciate each day, instead embodying the greater desire to create order amid disarray by attaching significance to certain moments. Attaching significance to my days, through even inconsequential means, allows me to achieve some sort of structure over the time that has passed.

I’ve come to notice the ways in which passing time is counted without clocks or calendars. Some hospice organizations mark the time since a patient passes in phone calls to surviving family members. Calls occur at pre-determined monthly intervals, often until about thirteen months after the patient’s death, though I’m not entirely convinced family members have stopped marking the time since their loved one’s death by the final call, if they ever stop at all. A hospice patient that I was particularly fond of marked her moments by the delivery of the daily newspaper, once telling me that she maintained her subscription mostly to “feel normal.” The daily delivery of the paper was one of the only artifacts from her previous years as a passionate advocate to carry forward into her recent years characterized by stagnation and decline. Each new headline marked another day that she was still unabashedly herself despite existing in a profoundly altered way.

With each goodbye, I’m counting my time towards a year that will be spent exploring how we say goodbye. I’ve struggled in deciding whether to keep a blog, fearing that doing so would be akin to assuming a bully pulpit. I ultimately decided to create one after a friend suggested that the site need not be solely populated with my thoughts and experiences, but could also be a means to share and engage with the experiences and opinions of others. That felt right because even in the months leading up to my year I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity individuals have shown me in lending their advice, connections, and personal stories. I am humbled by the year ahead of me and the experiences that will inevitably challenge my views of humanity, dignity, health, society, and, crucially, how they all intersect. Thank you for sharing in it with me.