A week of progress as this year winds down: thrilled to have the heartfelt help of good friends to rebuild the RC website (news to come on that), relieved to finally understand RC services enough that I can begin reworking internal data systems, and excited to have finally been granted a “kitas” by the government, or long-term, multiple-entry visa. And with help from one of our clean-needle clients, who has a cousin in the police force, I’ll be getting my Indonesian driver’s license soon enough as well!
With only a few weeks of practice, I’ve learned to zip back and forth on the roads, cruising around and in between the cars that clutter up the road. But with already 5 years of academic and professional ‘practice’, I’m still learning everyday how to zip back and forth between using my heart and using my head on the job, without causing an accident.
This past Wednesday brought a minor collision, unexpected, and though there were no injuries it certainly left a dent. Maybe my mind had become tired from tediously typing out the handwritten RC member database. Or maybe filling out the “death” column started to deteriorate my spirit. Whatever the factors that put me at risk, what pushed me over the edge was ultimately something trivial.
I sat with Adit (our only English-fluent staff member, who works part time as a translator), Ginan and Ikbal (Directors), as we planned our annual year-end evaluative staff meeting, to be held this week. They began to assign presentation roles among our three divisions, and got caught on a rather small point. “Rani can speak for the MKs (manager kasus or case managers) but not for the Buddies, Achiel has to speak for them.”
I piped up, in my new habit of making sure I really understand 100% of what is being said (and intended) before I allow important conversations to continue. “Aren’t Buddies and MK the same thing?” I asked.
“Bukan (No),” Adit sighed, wrapping one of his long dreadlocks around his finger, and drawing deep on his cigarette before responding. “Buddies are funded by Global Fund and MKs by USAID.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I thought in my now aching head. My tempature began to rise as I anticipated – once again – the failure of international aid to make any sense whatsoever.
“But the actual work is the same, right?,” I clarified, “MKs and Buddies both take care of our HIV+ members, accompany them to the hospital, give their families training and advice, like that, right?”
I began to launch into a rant chastising these donors for their destructive control-freak behavior, only to realize that my criticisms of my own country’s aid system must be getting tired to my coworkers. Though I bit my tongue, the rant continued on in my head. “Why do GF and USAID get to make the detailed plans?” I thought furiously. “RC should be able to design their human resource strategy however is best for them, and funders should respect that. Why are funders thousands of miles away and with far less grassroots experience making the plans for the real experts to follow? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?!?”
By the end of the day my mind was still reeling, and I escaped to the local track where I usually run in the mornings. Knowing it would be closed I persuaded the guard with a smile, a plea for my mental health, and a Rp. 2,000 bill (20 cents) to unlock the gates and give me just 30 minutes to run the stress out. Running around in circles, sweeping up small clouds of red dust with every aggravated step, my chest relaxed as I looked up at a colossal sunset, which I am usually too busy in the office to see every night. Magenta streaks pierced with citrus rays, spreading out in an enormous embrace, I suddenly felt like such a small part of such a big world. Within ten minutes the night has swallowed up the sun, and as is usual, lightning crackled miles away, electrocuting the air and putting me at peace.
Later that night, I tried to talk it out with Ginan, tried to explain the many ways that poor aid planning and illogical service structures limit Rumah Cemara’s potential, and give my brain headaches.
After patiently listening and agreeing with a majority of my analysis, he responded with such simplicity and conviction, that I felt tears well up in my eyes. His words, though few, begin unwrapping at the cynicism in which I’ve encased myself – my subconscious reaction to living in a world not yet fair enough for my standards.
“You must use your heart here, not only your brain.”
Initially I feel misjudged, as if he couldn’t possibly be aiming that comment at me with the intent to change my behavior. i use my heart all the time! That’s why i involve myself in this work!
But I quickly realized that’s not exactly what he meant. He’s not suggesting I lack heart, he’s challenging me to use it as much as I use my brain, from his perspective as someone whose entire existence is wrapped up in this work, not just for a CV or as a building block to another job.
I must admit I’m hesitant to accept. Discussing this with my younger sister on a long-overdue Skype call, we compared our experiences, as she just finished up a semester of working at a women’s shelter in Boston. She bercerita (tells stories) about how difficult many guests can be: women who act ungrateful for the help they are being given, women who are cheating the welfare system and, according to my sister, perhaps boxing out more women who are more direly in need but too proud or timid to take advantage of this help.
Giving credit to her boyfriend for the following insight, she explains, “I work with my heart, but In order to get real emotional gratification from my work I have to be emotionally detached.”
This, I agree immediately, has been my pattern in the past. Because emotional investment in this work oftentimes brings despair as often as gratification. If one chooses to ‘use heart’ without emotional discipline, the despair can overshadow the gratification.
But admittedly, at the same time, if one chooses to ‘use mind’, without emotional discipline, the habit of emotional guarding can overtake other areas of life, like friends and family.
It’s clear, as per usual, that balance is the key, and I hope that for all I can provide to Rumah Cemara in my mental analyses, I can also learn from them how to invest – with discipline – my heart more deeply. Because whether it’s Buddies or MKs, Rumah Cemara still works hard everyday. They don’t care what they have to call staff in a report — although it does unnecessarily confuse and complicate their reporting, monitoring and evaluation, and financial processes. They do the work that they know needs to be done, with heart, riding the ups and downs knowing that if they ever become detached, they will lost their motivation, their spirit, and their engine.
The healthiest mindset lies somewhere in between Ginan and Diana’s perspectives. Intellectual investment, this is already my habit, my way of caring in a ‘smart’ way, a way that keeps me from making emotionally charged decisions. But emotional investment is equally absolutely necessary to working in public health and in social work, and expectations should include both emotional distress as well as gratification. One can never be achieved without the other – and after years of avoiding both, I think it’s time to give heart a chance. Maybe the goal is not only to invest both heart and mind together, but further, to develop the discipline necessary to manage the positives and negatives that inevitably come with either approach.
After an full-day heavy-metal concert in Sukabumi on Saturday – Ginan’s band plays gigs a few times a month, always using the opportunity to promote Rumah Cemara’s services and decrease stigma around HIV – I am curled up in the car, exhausted, driving home in a carful of MKs, Buddies, and other co-workers. Though I’d like to be sleeping, they’re for some reason ripe with questions for me about America’s systems and ways of dealing with HIV and drug abuse.
Jimi taps my shoulder form the back seat and asks, “Kate, where does the USAID money come from?”
I pause for a moment, thinking how critical I’ve felt about this agency since I began working in Indonesia.
“Kate!” I say, suddenly exploding with laughter. “From me! It’s my tax money, it’s money from everyday American people.”
They immediately take the chance to criticize Indonesia and laugh that “Where does our tax money go? Berjalan-jalan saja!,” iimplying that it moves around without aim, and likely with corruption.
And for all I will continue to criticize about USAID and other donors, I’ve got to admit, America’s got heart. I think we just have yet to invest in combined emotional and intellectual disciplines that turn those good intentions into more effective programs.
That being said, HAPPY HOLIDAYS to you! I hope you will show your heart this holiday season by making a donation to Keep a Child Alive, or to Rosie’s Place, the shelter where my sister works. Or of course to Rumah Cemara,