From the comfort of our blogs sometimes it’s easy to criticise humanitarian organisations: they often come across as neo-colonial, with hierarchical and bureaucratic structures, they tend to suffer from a “macho culture syndrome” and when it comes to staff care…well we know that that’s bottom of the list. We also know how patronising some aid workers can be, abusing their power and adopting a lifestyle that they could never dream of back home. Beyond the adventurous façade a high percentage of aid workers’ suffer from depression, anxiety, burnout and substance abuse.
Nevertheless, as I witness what is going on in Gaza in these weeks, I can only have tremendous respect for all those people who are saving lives and working under the Israeli shelling. I think of all the ambulance drivers, paramedics, doctors. I’m reminded that most of those who remain on the frontline in an emergency are the so-called “national staff”. I also think of the people of UNWRA whose schools sheltering men, women and children, have been repeatedly bombarded. Chris Gunness – the UNWRA spokesman – breaking down in front of the Al Jazeera cameraman shows how overwhelmed humanitarians are under emergency. It also shows that some truly care and their spirit has not been crushed by the cynicism that often permeates humanitarian organisations. And Chris Gunness’ tears are a sign that those who care sometimes cry.
I’m reminded of the words of medical doctor Rachel Naomi Remen:
“We burn out because we have allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care. The burnout literature talks about the factors which heal burnout: rest, exercise, play, the releasing of unrealistic expectations. In my experience burnout only really begins to heal when people learn how to grieve. Grieving is a way of self-care, the antidote to professionalism. Health professionals don’t cry. Unfortunately” (from Kitchen Table Wisdom).
When professionals don’t cry for the suffering of others, as well as for their own grief, that’s when burnout may be creeping in. By turning a blind eye we deepen our own suffering and shield it under a pretence of professionalism.
In the midst of destruction, I’m personally touched by the humanity of those who are moved by what they witness, and are not afraid to show it without falling prey to sensationalism.