India is Broken and So Am I (Part 1)

After two and a half weeks in India interviewing women in the slums of Delhi, I was overcome with thoughts and feelings. Couple those experiences with a steady intake of podcasts, scripture, sermons, and other media, and my brain went into overdrive. This resulted in a very, very long piece connecting lots of random dots. To save you some reading time, I’ve separated the blog into four pieces which flow from one to another. This is the first installment. 

A few months ago, I was in Chiquila, Mexico talking to a new friend about the work I do capturing and sharing the stories of beautiful, vulnerable, marginalized people around the world. During our conversation, she asked me a question that has stuck with me in the following weeks and months.

She said something along the lines of, “How do you handle seeing all of that hard stuff each day? Does it get to you?”

And there are a couple of ways to answer that question.

The short answer is, yes, of course it gets to me. How could it not? The things I see and experience each day are painful and hard and unimaginable.

But the longer answer is that it doesn’t get to me the way it might to some people. Because, you see, I have a particular personality that I have fought against for years. One that isn’t particularly emotive or touchy-feely. I don’t cry about sad things. I break down because of stress, but not when things are painful or emotional. My go-to move it to remain stable. Remain in control. To fix.

It’s not that I don’t feel pain – I do. And it’s not that I don’t recognize when things are hard – it would be impossible to not. But I don’t wear these truths on the outside very easily.

I’ve never loved this about myself. It often makes me seem cold when others are struggling. I have to be particularly intentional about sympathy, reminding myself that most of the time, people need someone to feel their pain with them instead of looking for a solution to it.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this – long before the trip began, but especially this year when I’ve had lots of uninterrupted me-time. If you know me at all, you know that I love self-therapy – figuring out my motivations and underlying emotional issues. And I especially love personality tests. I think we can blame that on Davidson and it’s beautiful, amazing practice of pairing freshman roommates and constructing freshman halls based on residents’ Myers Briggs Personality Indicator types. Yes. For real.

So now, enter the Enneagram.

This is not new to me. I first learned about the test several years ago from some folks at church, but I was otherwise occupied and didn’t give it the time and attention it needed to be fully understood.

Now, I have time.

And I have a newfound love of podcasts.

So when one of my favorite podcasts (The Liturgists) did an episode on the Enneagram, I was hooked.

I’ll spare you the details of explaining the system in full (that’s what Wikipedia is for, people), and simply say that people are broadly divided into one of nine types, identified by the numbers 1-9.

And like many personality tests, I am always struck when the description of your “type” defines you scarily well. Get out of my head, enneagram.

I’m a three. The achiever.

And among of a lot of really wonderful characteristics that define threes, there is also this:

Thus, while they are the primary type in the Feeling Center, Threes, interestingly, are not known as “feeling” people; rather, they are people of action and achievement. It is as if they “put their feelings in a box” so that they can get ahead with what they want to achieve. Threes have come to believe that emotions get in the way of their performance, so they substitute thinking and practical action for feelings.

YES.

Oh my goodness this is me.

And yet despite the fact that this can easily be detrimental to many interactions, this character trait that I’ve tried to “overcome” has proven itself to be incredibly valuable in my current line of work.

I’ve come to see it less as a defect, but as a particular tool that God has given me to prepare met to do what He called me to do.

My ability to remain unshaken, even in the face of serious pain has allowed me to enter in and be with and listen. It has given me the shield I needed to do the work that I have in front of me. Because really, no one wants an interviewer who is breaking down in tears every three seconds. That’s just super awkward. Plus, it makes taking comprehensive notes pretty difficult.

Who would have thought that emotional challenges could make someone good at their job?

But.

(And I bet you knew there was a “but” coming.)

Over the past few weeks, particularly here in India, I’m beginning to lose my composure.

And here’s the craziest part:

I’m not getting emotionally sad. I’m getting emotionally angry.

As someone who prides herself on her cultural sensitivity and ability to meet a huge range of people with a variety of beliefs, traditions and understandings of the world without judgment or condescension, I am honestly surprised with my inability to remain cool and collected.

The other day, I wrote “ugh” in the margins of my interview notes. My supposed-to-be-objective interview notes.

I’m serious.

Because I can’t deal with how women are treated here. I can’t deal with the inability to dream. I can’t deal with the hopelessness.

I can handle poverty and destruction and brokenness and hunger. I can listen to your stories of desperation, your wish that your kids could go to school, your tears about your painful past.

I have learned to handle hard.

But when women hide their faces when a man walks into the room. Or talk about their biggest dream being to marry their daughters to good families. Or, most heartbreaking of all, explain that their communities are currently focused on educating their boys, not their girls.

Well, that sucks.

And I know that there is so much cultural truth underlying these statements. I know that for women in certain parts of the world, some of these behaviors don’t feel condescending or oppressive – they feel normal. Marriage, for example, is a big BIG deal in India. (Anyone want to take a guess how many times I’ve been asked if I’m married??).

And I don’t quite know what it is about this place and these women that is striking me so deeply. In my travels, I’ve met plenty of men who have multiple wives, plenty of women who are one of those multiple. I’ve spent a short few days in the Middle East where people were even more covered than they are here.

But here, it just feels hopeless.

And as I said in my first blog about India, that hopelessness is worse than any material poverty I’ve seen.

The oppression is so obvious, so evident. It’s inescapable.

It’s heart-shattering.

Continue to Part 2…

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6 thoughts on “India is Broken and So Am I (Part 1)

  1. Sheila C says:

    This is really something, coming from you, Allison.
    My MIL has traveled all over the world, too. She used to say Auschwitz was the most painful, but India surpassed that. She was so disheartened after that trip. Still, others come back from India invigorated, loving the people and their culture.
    So please keep digesting it for us.
    May God continue to give you strength and wisdom.

    Like

  2. Whitney Parchman says:

    So well put as usual! It is terribly unjust and unfair for these women. I feel your anger. I also feel your gratitude. Praise God that we have been given the opportunities that we have. Praise God! I don’t have enough praise to give because I can’t praise Him enough (on this matter especially)! Righteous anger it is, Sister. xo

    Like

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