Guilt is a unique emotion in that it is both selfless and selfish at the same time. It is simultaneously enlightening and debilitating, clarifying and obscuring. Visiting a developing country like Ghana while calling an immensely wealthy nation like the United States home is the perfect breeding ground for guilt to take root, multiply, and, if we’re not careful, spread like a cancer to the degree that accomplishing anything other than wallowing in it seems like an insurmountable task. We teach children about food and nutrition when they don’t have access to the healthy foods we discuss. We encourage hand washing with soap and clean water when soap is considered a luxury. We talk about first aid and germs when most of our students don’t have access to bandages and antiseptic cream. Perhaps most obviously, we sit in a classroom and eat a hearty lunch prepared for us at a restaurant while malnourished students without lunches play outside just steps away from us.
|Students in Adigbo Kofe as classes ended for the day and we prepared to board the bus.|
It has never been clearer to me that we have it easy- we live the good life, and most of us have never truly wanted for anything that could be considered a necessity of life. This is something I have taken for granted my entire life, and I probably will continue to expect it even after I return from Ghana. There are days when the guilt is somewhat assuaged, but still it lingers; its presence is a constant, dull reminder of privilege and of circumstance. Yesterday Katie, Kristina and I tried to help a young girl with a high fever, dizziness, and a throat and stomach ache. She hadn’t eaten in two days, and she hadn’t taken any medicine for her fever. In less than five minutes, she was eating a plate of rice and drinking water taken from the team’s lunch, and we gave her half an Aleve taken from my personal medication store. For a brief moment, there was a sense of accomplishment and hope that the little girl would get better, and that, in part, it would be because of our efforts. But those emotions were quickly replaced with yet another wave of guilt- why were the rice and water so readily available to me and not her? Why do I have seemingly endless access to medications when people in this girl’s village die because of a deceptively innocuous-seeming fever? At the end of the day, it just doesn’t seem fair- so the guilt lingers.
Last night at dinner, I asked the team to share their most challenging moment or aspect of the trip thus far. Guilt was an oft-repeated motif that wove its way through each of my teammates brief speeches in a way that nearly broke my heart. I sat at a table with 16 brilliant, motivated, passionate people who truly want to effect change, but they couldn’t see past the guilt to their own accomplishments and overwhelming successes with the students who welcomed us into their schools with open arms and beaming faces over the past week. So I decided not to let the guilt overtake us- how could I let the dark side of guilt overshadow the brightness and light of the pure love for humanity that exists in each member of my team? Yes, we are privileged. Yes, it is unjust and almost cruelly unfair at times. Yes, a certain degree of guilt offers perspective and maintains balance. But (and this is a big, important but) we are making the deliberate choice to use that cruelly unfair privilege to equalize the global playing field to the best of our abilities. Slowly but surely, as more of our peers, mentors, and successors in our respective fields recognize the need for this equalization, the guilt will begin to dissipate. For now, I’ll settle for the ever-present guilt taking a backseat to the other emotions I think my team deserves to feel as our week of public health education draws to a close- jubilation, empathy, sadness, a sense of purpose and, above all, hopefulness for the future.