Me Too

Nanjye.

Me, too.

You know what I mean. You’ve seen it on your feed—one post after another, one person after another speaking up

I see them flooding my social media—some simple admissions, some angry accusations, some anguished stories, some voices for others who, for one reason or another, fear to post for themselves. 

(a screenshot of a friend’s post, shared with permission)

They fill me with sorrow and fury and understanding, because those things have been done to me, too.
I, too, have been whistled at, touched, called by endearments that made me uncomfortable. 

I have been told to smile by strangers in parking lots and grocery stores and subway stations, made to feel unsafe in my workplace, forced to listen to sexual stories I had no desire to hear. 

I have been watched in ways that made me feel unclean in my own skin.

I have been asked invasive questions about my underwear or my sexual preferences. 

I have had strangers force me to defend my choice not to engage in a conversation that made me uncomfortable, not to share my phone number, not to let a man come into my house. 

And yet, despite this, I am a lucky one. 

It makes me physically nauseous to admit that I am fortunate simply because my body has not been invaded.

But when I pretend to be on the phone walking in the dark at night, when I carry my keys between my fingers as a makeshift just-in-case weapon, when I keep my hand over my drink or eye strangers on the road or double-check my locks—I am taking preventative action based on the stories of millions of people for whom the threat is also a memory.

So I say, “Me, too.”

So I watch in unsurprised sorrow as nearly everyone I know adds their voice to the clamour on social media.

So I listen in rage to the stories around me—rage driven by frustration, fear, grief, and helplessness.

What if victims did not carry the burden of sharing their experiences? What if the hurting did not have to prove their numbers for us to make a change?

What if the responses I saw on social media were not ones of disbelief, dismissal, or denial?

I know there are many—too many—abusers, aggressors, and enablers who will never admit to their part in creating a culture that allows this many people to be victimised. And I know there are others who will not only admit but will boast of their perpetration of injustice—I’m looking at you, POTUS

But what about the well-meaning majority? What about the people who genuinely want a better world, who believe themselves to be good people, who passively allow these wrongs to continue?

What if we stood up and admitted the ways we have, knowingly or unknowingly, made possible a culture of inequality?

Here, again, I can say, “Me, too.”

I, too, have allowed oppressive systems to continue, giving permission by my silence. 

I am a victim, but I am also an enabler.

I, too, have laughed at sexist jokes and judged people by their conformity or nonconformity to gender roles. 

I have allowed harassment to go unchallenged and unreported, expected women to prove their abilities in male-dominated fields, and expressed admiration for characters whose masculinity is defined in part by their objectification of women (hey there, James Bond). 

I have disparaged things purely because they are coded as feminine. 

I have dismissed someone’s viewpoint because I have not experienced it myself, ignored truths because the speaker seemed too emotional, used words related to women as insults and words related to men as compliments.

I have questioned victims rather than believing them.

I, too, have propagated this culture.

There’s a quote attributed to Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” 

We know better. We must do better.

Awareness is important. The voices of survivors are important. Revealing and acknowledging the magnitude of the problem is important: in the US, someone is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, and that’s not even mentioning those harassed but not assaulted. We need to recognise that this is absolutely unacceptable.

But we also need to take these passive phrases and turn them on their heads. We need to demand the active voice, to say not only, “This has been done to me,” but also, “I have done this.”

Until we recognise the ways that we contribute to the problem, we will never solve it.

What if all those who know better committed to doing better?

Again, I want to stand up and say, “Me, too.”

I, too, commit to change. 

I have kept silent or protested passively; now I commit to naming sexism, harassment, abuse, and aggression in all its forms, to speaking up and calling out the jokes, the slurs, the stereotypes, the microaggressions.

I commit to hearing to the voices of the oppressed, to challenging the status quo, to identifying and rejecting toxic masculinity.

I commit to supporting victims by listening to them, believing them, and speaking for them when needed. 

I commit to admitting, apologising, and adjusting when—not if—I perpetuate harmful ideologies, to accepting criticism without defence, and to changing my behaviour without complaint.

But I—we—cannot stand alone.

This week I taught my students the concepts of power balance, vulnerable people, and allyship. We discussed that some people have less voice and that those with power can help those without it. 

In a gendered situation, I am the one without power. I am the one whose voice is drowned out, whose complaints are trivialised. 

I am told I am oversensitive, that my experiences are invalid, that I am ignorant of how far our culture has come. 

I am told “not all men,” and, “it’s just the way it is,” and, “can’t you take a compliment?”

So I am calling you out, you who identify as male, you who have power, you whose voices are not ignored. I am calling you to step up in the active voice and say, “I have done this—but no more.”

I commit to learning better, and I commit to doing better.

Will you?

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To Remember

Kwibuka

To remember

The seventh of April is a day of poignant significance in Rwanda. 

Twenty-three years ago, in 100 days beginning on 7 April 1994, over a million people were murdered in Rwanda, not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were.

“Genocide means . . . acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group…”

From Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (source)

Every year on this anniversary, the nation shuts down for a day of united mourning and memorial, and today I, an American for whom this day holds no memories, was invited to stand in solidarity with those who remember.

My neighbour Theophile took me to the Gahana cell office near the town centre where most of the residents of our area were gathered, sitting in desks brought over from the school. Aside from quiet greetings, the crowd sat silent—a rare occurrence among Rwandans, who are, in my experience, generally social, jovial, and unselfconscious. 

We opened with a prayer by one of the local church leaders and some remarks by a local cell leader, describing to us the theme of this year’s memorial—remember, unite, renew. The theme, as he explained it to us (and as Theophile translated for me, since I understood only some of what he said) is to remember the genocide against the Tutsi, fight against genocide ideology, and continue to build up the country. 

The speaking was punctuated intermittently by a men’s choir from the nearby Adventist church. From what I could understand of the lyrics, they sang that the genocide happened because love was cold, that this earth is old and we must journey, that someday there will be no death.

 “Genocide is possible when the messages of hate from would-be perpetrators go unchallenged and when the people at risk fall outside the awareness—and/or the sense of moral obligation—of anyone who could help to ensure their protection.”

(source)

After this, we all walked to the memorial site. Every area has a genocide memorial, usually a building and a small landscaped space, often including mass graves. Ours is in Songa, a distance of about two kilometres from my village, and together we took what Theophile referred to in English as “a walk of remember.” 

Mostly silent, collecting people along the way, we walked together, shoulder to shoulder the width of the road, moving feet and bowed heads as far as I could see ahead and behind.

A primary student from my school, apparently with no adult supervision and one of the few children I saw, came up beside me and stayed quietly through the whole of the event. He was born after the genocide, but he will grow up remembering these memorials every year.

A few neighbours and teachers shook my hand in passing. Nobody else seemed to notice me. On this day, in this place, my foreignness ceased to be important. I never heard “umuzungu,” and no-one looked at me as if I should not be there.

As we neared the memorial, Theophile nudged me and pointed off to the left. The trees broke to give a stunning view of the hills and valleys rolling away to the east. This, he told me, was where the abatutsi in this area were brought to be killed.

“Over the past century, more than 200 million people died as a result of state-sponsored mass murder.”

(source)

At the memorial site, we gathered, as many as could fit inside the fence standing pressed together, more lining the fence outside, some sitting across the road on the grass. Theophile and I stood next to a low wall separating the walkway from one of the mass graves, and he whispered to me that in this place were buried 43,000 Tutsi.

The leaders of three different churches prayed, and various community members and officials gave speeches. One speech—whose words I understood none of—was presented in short passages over and in between the constant sound of a choir I could not see, who sang over and over in Kinyarwanda, “Rwanda nziza—ntuzongere.” 

“Beautiful Rwanda—never again.”

Someone turned on the radio and we listened to the official broadcast—speeches in Kinyarwanda, French, and English detailing the history of Rwanda and of the ideology that lead to the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, reminding us of the immense progress made since then, and urging people to be unified as we move forward. 

In front of me, sitting on the low wall by the grave, five abakecuru—old women—sat with their hands to their faces, wiping tears away for the entire three hours that we stood there under the sun in that place of grief and memories. Beside me, Theophile occasionally let out an audible sob.

During 100 days in April 1994, over a million people were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped, many intentionally infected with HIV/AIDS. Thousands of children were orphaned.

(source)

We held a minute of silence to remember those who had died. President Kagame told us that we must live our lives by remembering what happened, accepting that we cannot change the past, and making it our task to prevent such a tragedy ever occurring again. I thought of the way radio was used in 1994 to stir up hatred and violence, and of the way it was used today to encourage peace and unity.

And then, together, we walked home, no Hutu, no Tutsi, only Rwandans—and me.

Today I felt the weight of the privilege I have of living with these people; of being invited into this country, this culture, this village; of being welcomed, not as a visitor, but as a member of the community; of standing united with those who remember.
If you want to learn more about the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994 or about the memorials held in Rwanda during this time, you can go to one of these websites:

National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide

Kwibuka 

Aegis Trust 

Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

Lately I’ve had some discouraging days. I’ve looked at other volunteers’ work and felt insufficient beside their accomplishments. I’ve looked at the tasks ahead of me and felt incompetent to complete them. I’ve looked at the students before me and felt incapable of teaching them. 

I’ve had to sit myself down and remind myself of the reasons I’m here—and, more importantly, of the reasons not to be here. I had to hold up a lot of expectations and desires, consider them, and then throw them out.

So without further ado, here are some reasons not to join the Peace Corps:

  • You want to save the world

Joining the Peace Corps sounds so heroic. It carries a connotation of sacrifices made for the good of others. It’s used in movies whenever a character needs a generic Good Thing in their past. It seems like a way to really make a difference. And honestly the stats showing PC’s impact on the world are impressive. But you won’t see those numbers. You’ll be inside the situation, one person facing billions, and the problems even just in your village will be too numerous and expansive for you to tackle on their entirety, never mind fixing the whole world’s issues. You can give important-sounding labels to your work—developing capacity maybe, or spreading literacy, or increasing gender equality—but really much of your service will come down to the everyday tedium of small, unheroic tasks done well. Cleaning your floor, or talking to a neighbour, or going to the bank, or getting to work on time. Don’t get me wrong: you will make a difference. But you will not save the world. 

Here’s what my world looks like at the moment. Observe that I have not saved it.
  • You need immediate affirmation in your job

If you need someone to tell you you’re doing things right as soon as you do them, this is not the job for you. While there are plenty of short-term accomplishments, PC jobs work toward long-term improvement. You may only see your triumphs in retrospect. You may feel like a failure in the moment. You may go a long time without anyone telling you you’re doing well, and you have to keep working, keep watching for the tiny successes that tell you you’re getting there, and keep trusting that one day you’ll look back and see that something you did somewhere along the line made some kind of a difference. 

  •  You need to feel competent

It doesn’t matter how much training you have in the sector you work in, getting thrown into a brand new culture and a brand new way of doing things and a brand new language will leave you feeling out of your depth. If, like a lot of PCVs, you have training related to your sector but not directly in the job you’re doing, it’s even worse. And even if you feel competent in your specific job, you’re likely to feel incompetent in a hundred other ways. Trying to start secondary projects. Trying to hold simple conversations. Trying to buy food. Some days I feel incompetent just walking next door. 

  • You can’t stand discomfort

PCVs joke about “Posh Core,” but it doesn’t matter if you got lucky and have running water, or electricity, or a real toilet—you will still be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable talking to strangers in a new language, or bargaining in the market, or refusing to hand out money on the streets. You will be uncomfortable on your mattress on the floor the first night, and in the latrine the first time you get food poisoning, and in your job on the first day when you don’t know the people and you don’t know the routine and you don’t know the work. You’ll be uncomfortable on busses, you’ll be uncomfortable interviewing local officials, you’ll be uncomfortable attending religious services or social functions. Every time you get comfortable, you’ll be pushed on to something else hard or scary or awkward. Peace Corps is a lot of things—rewarding, interesting, challenging—but comfortable is not one of them.

Also uncomfortable: having children stare in the window while I teach.
  • You don’t want to work outside your career path

It doesn’t matter if you specifically trained for the job you’re doing in PC, you’ll be doing something outside your career path. Trained as a teacher? Great. You’re set for your primary assignment, but you’ll probably also write grants for a new basketball court or have to study up on microfinance to help local women for your secondary project. Peace Corps isn’t a normal nine-to-five where you have a set job description and you do the thing you’re told to do and then go home. Your job description in PC is to do whatever your village needs, and to learn how to do it if you don’t know already.

  • You want to live a private life

There’s nothing private about PCV life. Everyone knows you’re a foreigner. People discuss you and stare at you and ask you invasive questions and watch you to see how you handle life. I’ve had people in awe because I knew how much to pay for a twege ride that I take every few weeks. I’ve had people ask me if the reason I’m single is that I don’t have “a functional body.” People in the street comment on my wardrobe and talk about me whether or not they know I can understand them, and when I brought home my puppy, ten different people appeared to see it, marvel that I want an animal, and ask me to describe her diet in detail. 

  • You want to do something you already know how to do

You don’t know how to be a PCV. It doesn’t matter what your previous training or experience is, because every site, every job, every service is different. There will be things you didn’t anticipate and things you have no idea how to handle. You’ll get really good at shouting out for answers from other PCVs or begging your neighbours for help. You’ll learn to improvise, to be flexible, to make it up as you go along, to take criticism, and to recognise indirect feedback from the people around you. You will spend enormous amounts of time doing things you’re not sure how to do, and you’ll discover you can do them.  

  • You want all-or-nothing results

I already said you can’t save the world. But life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. You can’t save the world. But you can make a tiny corner of it a tiny bit better for a tiny number of people. For the one student who really takes off, or for the one woman who learns how to keep her new baby healthy, or for the one group that benefits from your secondary project. If you join the Peace Corps, you won’t end poverty. You won’t singlehandedly educate a nation. You won’t change an economy in two years. But you will open up opportunities for a few kids. You will bring awareness of different cultures to people in your village and to people back home. You will be privileged to see incredible instances of hard work and determination and compassion and teamwork winning out over circumstances. And you will find that it’s an exchange—that for everything you give, the people around you give back in ways you never expected.

These kids excited about books despite being totally unable to understand them is one of those tiny ways I’m moving forward. Maybe someday these kids will be able to sit down with a book, read it, understand it, and enjoy it.

So yeah, sometimes I’m discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything important. But the truth is I’m not here to do something important. I’m here to do a lot of little things well and to trust that some of those little things will make a difference. 

Q&A

​Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! I’m excited to tell you more about my life here. 

Who are your best friends? 

It actually took me quite a while, and sometimes I thought I would spend two years feeling very alone—but partway through training I found my place with three friends: 

  • Colin, who constantly makes us laugh and is surprisingly quick to listen to other people’s opinions
  • Claire, who knows more philosophy and literature than the rest of us and constantly forces us to think hard and re-evaluate our ideas
  • Emily, who has all the practical knowledge under the sun and encourages all of us. 

We laughingly call our group Safety Dance and are planning a family reunion sometime in the next month or two.

The four of us take family photos whenever big things happen, such as this one at host family farewell.

What are you reading? 
I’ve been trying to keep it varied:

I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine’s Confessions and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. I just finished Beloved by Toni Morrison and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and I’m halfway through Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller. 

(I also didn’t sleep for two straight days because I was reading Luminosity and Radiance, a Twilight reimagining along the lines of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Don’t judge; just go read it.) 

What do you wish you had known before travelling overseas? 

I’ve done quite a bit of travelling before, but I’ve mostly been to European countries where there’s never a question of whether or not my bank cards will work or what conveniences I can find. Here I’ve been told that my bank cards will probably not work—meaning I have to work out alternative ways to access my bank account if I want to, say, hike Kilimanjaro (I want to) or see the gorillas (I want to)—and while I was told my internet would be sketchy at best, I really didn’t have a good grasp on what that would mean or how many aspects of my life would be affected by that lack.

What’s been the hardest adjustment you’ve had to make? How are you overcoming it? 

Socialising! Relationships are a cornerstone of Rwandan culture. Greeting people is significant—to refuse to greet someone implies that they don’t exist for you—and Rwandans love to visit and be visited. 

And I am an introvert with social anxiety. If I’m not careful, trying to meet the standard of being friendly to everyone leaves me exhausted, both physically and emotionally. 

Overcoming this is mostly about pacing myself. Instead of trying to greet every person on the street, I limit myself to people I know, people who greet me first, and old women and children, unless I’m feeling particularly energetic and friendly. I only force myself to leave the house once a day. It’s also growing easier as I get to know more people in my village; I now have several friends with whom I feel comfortable almost all the time, so I can socialize with them and not feel like I need to sleep for a week when I get home.

(A close second is constantly having to defend being single and the principle that it’s okay to be single/to want to be single. In this culture, there’s no word for “woman” separate from “wife.” You’re either a girl or a wife. It’s emotionally and mentally more tiring than I expected to constantly tell people that I’m not married, that I don’t particularly want to be married at the moment, that I don’t plan to marry the first Rwandan man who asks me, that I might never get married.)

How can I send you mail? 

I’m glad you asked! Check out this page, which has my mailing address and some advice about the best ways to send things. Some volunteers have had problems with missing mail, but so far all of my things have arrived in good shape in a more or less timely manner.

Are there restrictions on what I can send? 
I’m sure there are. You should check with USPS if you’re not sure about something, since I don’t have the rules memorised, but here are a few things I do know: 

  • You’re not supposed to send liquids
  • You’re not supposed to send money
  • Packages take a long time so anything perishable will stink by the time I get it 🙂 


Do you feel your training prepared you for site? 

Yes and no. I don’t think anything could have fully prepared me for the experience of standing alone in my own house with no furniture, matches, or charcoal, knowing nobody, in a place I had never so much as visited. At the same time, here I am, two months later, beginning to feel really at home in my village. I haven’t starved and I have made friends. I could not have survived here without the training I was given on both a cultural and a practical level. And while I think my language was (and still is) hugely lacking, there’s also only so much you can learn of a complex new language in just three months. There are some practical concerns that I wish had been addressed during training, but it where explicit information was missing from training, I gained cultural and language skills and a flexible attitude that make it possible for me to now solve problems as they come up. 

I should also add that other PCVs and PC staff have been available to answer all my questions and my neighbours and coworkers have gone above and beyond to help me out of any jams I’ve gotten into. 

Do you have time to draw? 

Sometimes. I haven’t drawn much since coming here in part because I’ve had a lot of other things taking up my creative energy (such as lesson planning with no resources!) and in part because I couldn’t bring my favourite medium—my collection of coloured inkwells—with me. 

Here’s a quick doodle I did during a training session—I walked home behind these three women one night. Also I can’t get my phone to rotate the picture, so you’ll have to rotate your heads. Sorry.  

How have you adjusted to using different currency? 
Having no frame of reference for what was expensive of cheap was really difficult at first. The conversion rate hovers around 1USD to 850RWF (Rwandan francs), so the prices don’t look even slightly similar to American prices. During PST I started viewing all prices in relation to an average meal at my favourite cheap restaurant, which helped. Now I have a much clearer sense of what prices are expensive in relation to each other and to my income—and to the average Rwandan’s income—and I usually don’t even think about it.

What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to experience so far?

The level of poverty. Abject poverty is the norm here, not the exception. It’s hard having children dressed in literal rags visit me and tell me they don’t go to school because their parents can’t afford to buy them a uniform, or having a child walk several hours to go door to door through my village asking for work because he’s hungry. “Eliminate poverty” is the first answer my students give to almost any critical thinking question I pose. It’s incredibly difficult to live among these people knowing that even my meager income is higher than theirs and that I can’t do much for that aspect of their lives. 

What new food have you liked?  
I like a lot of food here, but my biggest surprises have been igikoma—porridge—and ubugari—a gelatinous “bread” made of cassava flour. In both cases, seeing the texture made me expect to be stifling a gag reflex, but igikoma became my favourite snack during PST and ubugari has a mild, woody flavour that makes it a great base for sopping up sauces.

What have you learned about yourself, and the individuals you’ve met, during your time there so far? 

About myself: 

I am a lot less patient and flexible than I thought! Being here has pushed me to limits I didn’t know I had. I’ve gotten angry about miscommunications and I’ve given way to frustration with coworkers, friends, and supervisors. I constantly have to check myself and my reactions.

About the individuals I’ve met: 

The thing that has been constantly impressed on me is that they’re just that: individuals. Culture can predict a lot about how someone will react, what they’ll say, etc.—especially in a place like Rwanda that’s small and mostly homogenous in a way the US isn’t—but people here are just as unique and individual as anyone else. Control-freak me wants to be able to predict and navigate all social situations by understanding culture, but that’s not how it works. It’s simple and profound, but the truth is that these people, just like all other people, are not their culture; they’re themselves. 


Feel free to keep sending me questions via Facebook, comments, or direct messages! I’ll collect them and keep answering until they run out.

In America… 

​“Mur’Amerika…”

“In America…”

Sometimes we PCVs say to each other things like, “Do you remember in America when we had hot water?” or, “Do you remember in America how berries existed?” It’s partly us missing the conveniences, culture, and cuisine, and partly reminding each other that we’re in a place we never really thought we would be.

We’re so immersed in life here that sometimes we have to sit back and make ourselves consciously notice all the things that are unique to this place, all the details of our settings and experiences that tangibly mark our adventure here as patently different from where we were before.

I could write you a blow-by-blow description of my daily life, but perhaps you will have a better holistic understanding of my situation if I tell you about the things that have happened in the past few weeks that would not happen in America.

In America, opening conversations with strangers would not include the following questions: 

  • “How old are you?” (followed directly by “You’re just a child!”)
  • “Are you married?” (followed directly by “Why not?” or 
  • “When will you get married?”) 
  • “Do you still have both parents?”

In America, my white skin would not cause ripples of whispers and hisses and whistles and shouts, and nobody would immediately assume that I speak French. I would not be hugged by random toddlers in the street, mothers would not point me out to their children, and babies would not burst into terrified tears at the sight of me. 

In America, I would not walk into the third day of school and hear that the administration still has not made an academic calendar or official timetable. I would not try to find the curriculum for my classes three days after beginning teaching, and I would not have the subjects I teach changed a week into the schoolyear.
In America I would not walk home for lunch surrounded by fifty or so unsupervised three- to ten-year-olds.

In America, I would not see a man carrying three stools on his head, and if I did, I would not cross the road to ask if they were for sale. He would not then tell me a price higher than the going rate, and I would not then counter with a lower price. He would not unbind the chairs and have me sit in each of them right there on the side of the road. I would not then walk home carrying a chair.

In America, I would not consider taking a bus to the nearest large city just to get internet, and I would not hoard my non-burnable rubbish to carry to that city—the nearest place with receptacles for waste disposal.
In America, I would not wake to roosters cackling, cows bellowing, and goats shrieking in the streets, nor to the distinctive sound of magpies fighting for prime perches on my roof.

In America, I would not stay home from work because it was raining.

In America, I would not walk to an open-air market several times a week for basic groceries, and I would not carry those groceries home in a backpack.

In America, I would not coax charcoal into flame in order to cook. I would not pay close attention to my protein intake, and I would not eat cabbage in nearly every meal. I would not—along with about a dozen other PCVs—nearly burst into tears at the sight of homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

In America, I would not feel obliged to introduce visiting friends to all of my neighbours, and little old ladies in the market would not feel obliged to inform those friends that I am “muzungu wacyu”—“our foreigner.”
In America, a shopkeeper would not send me home with goods I have not paid for, saying, “You’ll come back tomorrow.”

In America, children would not show up at school on a Saturday armed with machetes and hoes and proceed to cut down all the coffee trees and dig a volleyball court out of the hill behind the nursery building, and in America, I would not join them if they did.

In America, a stranger would not meet me in the street, ask if I live alone, and then appear in the evening to visit with me because “it is not good to be alone.”
In America, my neighbour would not give me beans and milk purely because she has them and I do not. My neighbour would not check on me every few nights to ask if I’m doing alright, and she would not teach the neighbourhood my name. My boss would not consider it his duty to make sure that I “live well” in my neighbourhood.

When I stop to think about it, there’s very little of my life here that would happen in America. Some of it is hard. Some of it is so easy I almost don’t notice it. Sometimes the culture here feels like a puzzle I’ll never fit into, and sometimes it takes my breath away with its kindness and welcome.

The important thing isn’t what would be happening if I were in America right now; it’s that I’m not. I’m here, in Rwanda, living this life with these people, and I love it.

Defining Ourselves

“We live in a culture where we define ourselves by our weaknesses.”

My mother said it in passing recently, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe because it struck me so hard and true. We define ourselves by our weaknesses—by the things we haven’t accomplished or the lifestyle we don’t have, by our disorders or our deficiencies.

I see it in myself. I see it everywhere, in fact, once I begin to look for it.

I define myself by my social anxiety and lack of financial security. Even when I acknowledge my strengths, I find a way to turn them into weaknesses: I am a mediocre musician and an aspiring novelist.

You probably do it too—undermine yourself, maybe out of a sense of false modesty, or maybe out of fear. You’re successful, but…

But what?

It’s smart in some ways, finding our weak points, learning to compensate for our deficiencies, protecting our vulnerabilities. But in a world full of impossible standards, where failure is magnified and our best is never quite good enough, we have enough negative voices cutting us down; we don’t need to make ourselves feel worse.

So why do we do it? Maybe it’s self-preservation. We’re terrified of being insignificant and insufficient, so we cut ourselves down before someone else can do it for us. Being told we’re worthless hurts less if we’ve already told it to ourselves. When someone says, “You’re not good enough,” we can respond with, “I never said I was.”

edmundburke

We try to protect ourselves by reducing our value to the lowest common denominator. We’re afraid to be knocked down if we stand too tall. Weaknesses are impervious to attack, invulnerable to comparison. In a competitive culture, someone else’s strengths always feel like a threat to mine, but someone else’s weaknesses feel like companionship.

But what if we defined ourselves by our strengths? What if we turned the model on its head and saw every drawback as a gift? What if I stopped saying, “I am anxious” and began saying, “I am brave enough to function despite my anxiety”?

Suddenly we’re not petrified by fear, not shackled by the limitations we’ve set. We’re free to try, fail, and try again. We’re free to take ownership of our wins as well as our losses. We’re strong enough to stand for ourselves, to acknowledge ourselves as being more than the sum of our shortcomings.

We are not defined in terms of other people. I don’t have to see myself in competition. I can own my abilities no matter where they fall in relation to you. We don’t have to be strong versus stronger—we can all be strong. We don’t have to be successful versus more successful—we can all be successful.

We are all good enough, if we’ll only stop looking for reasons not to be.

Isolation

“Also, I left my headphones on my couch, so now what do I do if I hate people?”

You probably understand the frustration underlying that text and the sense of camaraderie in my friend’s immediate reply: “I have no good solution for that, sadly.”

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Headphones are more than a convenient gadget to me and a gazillion other people—probably including you. They’re not just a nice way to get my Panic! At the Disco fix when I’m in public and can’t blare “Hallelujah” for everyone else to hear. They’re my safe place in a crowded waiting room, my sanity in the chaos of a subway station, my sensory anchor in a sea of abstract finals-week concepts.

In many ways, these flimsy rubber earbuds build a safety barrier between me and the world. They save me from having to make eye contact. They protect against mindless small talk. They lock me into the task at hand when ambient conversations tug at my attention.

But they also isolate.

And in a lonely world full of synthetic relationships, perfunctory “how ya doin’?”s, and long-distance Facebook friends, isolation becomes a real danger—especially for introverts and/or shy people. It becomes a vicious cycle: we’re surrounded by people and pummelled by stimuli every moment of the day, thanks to work, classes, and social media, so we retreat into solitude—but because all of that social stimulation is surface-level, we’re people-weary and yet soul-numbingly lonely at the same time. So we venture into the chaos of crowds, only to reemerge, still exhausted and still isolated.

I noticed this paradoxical near distance one evening as my flatmate and I sat on neighbouring couches in the living room, both sipping tea, both doing homework—both sealed by earbuds into individual cocoons of music. We sat within arm’s length of each other for several hours without once engaging.

To speak—to share an experience—became an intrusion that required pausing music, removing an earbud, emerging from a private world.

In a moment when we could have shared the companionship of background music and quiet presence while we studied, we instead chose to lock ourselves away. For either of us to fill the room with music would be to invade the other’s privacy and convenience—an infraction of the worst kind in a culture where, somehow, steady individual comfort has taken the place of dynamic interpersonal relationships.

I still carry my earbuds everywhere I go. I plugged them in to shut out voices on the bus this weekend, and I will turn up the volume to seal my private world around me in the science building this afternoon.

But in the quiet of my flat, with my flatmates nearby, in those shared moments of doing homework and washing dishes and stealing chapters of recreational reading…in those moments, I leave the earbuds out and leave myself open.