Sometimes you lose touch with your beliefs. And often something unexpected brings you back. I know because this happened to me.
After working for several years on improving health programs in Africa, I stopped believing that I could make a difference. A woman still dies every minute from pregnancy-related causes, 1800 children are infected with HIV each day, and 200 million women lack access to family planning services. Sure, the work was good for me; I saw beautiful places, padded my CV with overseas experience and publications, and paid off my college debt. But did it mean anything beyond that?
I was so disillusioned that I partially dropped out, dividing my time between consulting and creative writing. In addition to writing scientific papers, I began to write stories: the obligatory fictionalized autobiography, an adventure about three children’s journey through a deck of tarot cards, and fables about how a sarcastic sloth saves the day and the importance of a warthog’s curiosity. And it was creating these stories that helped me believe again, to see what made both my work and my writing matter.
What I do as a health researcher is similar to what I do as a writer—observe, listen, make sense of the information, structure it into a story, and then share it—because stories truly become meaningful when they are shared. This requires making real connections with people, treating people with respect and courtesy. If you don’t listen, you can’t tell good stories.
Such connections make the spaces between us smaller, replacing ignorance with understanding. When I lived in China, babies would stare at me, their eyes would grow wider and wider, and finally they would cry. I’m not so scary looking, but I was different. I understood because my childhood included little diversity—I come from a small town where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” was the unanimous choice for our 8th grade dance song. Years ago, when a friend learned that I’d never heard of “Shaft,” he called me the whitest person he’d ever met. But my parents raised me to be curious, so I didn’t accept my lack of awareness. I read, I listened, and I traveled.
And I heard so many things in my travels. When I conducted studies on abortion, experts said that women wouldn’t discuss their experiences around such a taboo subject. But that’s not what my Kenyan research team found. These women wanted to talk, to tell their stories, to have someone listen. In an often dehumanized medical system, they wanted to be treated like human beings. And if I can help get their voices heard, then I am doing something useful. In fact, their stories helped persuade health providers and managers to improve the services these women received.
At the global level, change is slow. But even small connections make a difference. Every time you treat a person with dignity and decency, when you really listen, you advance the cause of human rights. Maybe it’s difficult to measure these efforts, but they do give you good stories. And I do believe that telling stories matters. Whether a formal report or a fable, stories bring people closer and even allow for traveling without moving.
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