“What we do is vital. Even on the days we may feel useless or unimportant, we are diligently keeping watch — watching history unfold on one of many frontlines. Keep going.” - May 22, 2018
All of us desire to be useful — at least I hope we all do. We long to do big things. We want to affect change and be needed. I believe it is a fundamental human characteristic. To me, it is beyond a “sense of purpose.” I’m exhausted of using that phrase. Being useful in that purpose is what we should be striving for. For what is purpose if we don’t take a risk to act on it?
I battle with the internal struggle between usefulness, burnout, constantly being available to help, exhaustion, non-stop work, and complete fatigue. That “balance” we all seek so much is elusive. I don’t know if we’ll ever find it.
Bear with me through these first few paragraphs — it's 7:29 a.m. on my first of four flights home, and my-less-than-one-quarter-drank coffee was just taken from me because we’re preparing to arrive in Athens after just 45 minutes…
All right, back in the air after what seemed like an endless layover in the worst airport on this earth… I’ve had more coffee as well!
Where were we? Oh yeah — being useful. You know, I think the best way to explain where I’m coming from in trying to define that space between feeling vital and useless is to explain how I feel leaving Lesvos this year as opposed to last year in line with where the refugee crisis is currently at.
As I was boarding my flight to Athens in Mytilini, I received a notification on WhatsApp from the group that all suspected refugee dinghy sightings are put into.
10 degrees from Korakas
Too far to determine the distance,
probably still in Turkish water
NATO close to the spot
What all of this essentially means is that the overnight spotting team at Korakas thinks they see a refugee dinghy due north of their location but it’s too far to give a numerical estimate for the distance because, in the night vision binoculars, the dinghy would merely be a pixel. The message also says that it is believed to be in Turkish water with a Turkish NATO warship close to it. That means the possibility of a pullback is likely — the dinghy may get taken back to Turkey and the refugees thrown in prison. It was sent at 6:20 a.m.
I knew one thing for sure — I didn’t want Turkish NATO or Turkish Coast Guard to intercept the suspected 44 people in the dinghy.
Eventually, Italian Frontex — the E.U. border force represented by varying E.U. member states — picked them up and transported the new arrivals to Mytilini. No landing in Skala but a spot nonetheless.
I stood in the line to board the plane flabbergasted. This was the first sign of a new arrival on Lesvos’ north shore in more than a week. This is where emotions and feelings get complicated.
On the one hand, we like having dinghies cross and land on the north shore because it gives us something to do in a tiny fishing village where the most popular activities are swimming or sitting at Goji Cafe. Plus, it means that refugees are leaving the horrific conditions in Turkey where refugees have been beaten, raped, and imprisoned for no reason.
On the other hand, new arrivals mean more refugees in an already overcrowded Moria refugee camp on Lesvos. The camp currently has more than 7,000 refugees. The conditions in Moria are horrendous — tiny tents hoisted for families of nearly eight people, ISOBoxes packed full of refugees, and seemingly nowhere to put anyone new. Yet they keep coming. The situation — in my eyes — is inhumane.
I did not see Moria with my own eyes this year, but I am basing these observations off of conversations with other volunteers who have worked in the camp this year and the few respectable news articles that continue to cover this ongoing crisis.
So that’s the odd emotional and mental state we are in. We want people to come, but we also don’t. It’s extremely difficult to grapple with. Needless to say, I didn’t know how to react to reading a dinghy may be crossing. I knew it gave the volunteers in the north something to do, but I know Moria is dreading their arrival to a certain extent.
This is the ugly space between vital and useless.
It’s a chasm of trying to figure out if what you’re doing is truly worth it — the time, perceived effort, and money.
As I sit on this airplane flying back home after nearly three weeks of spotting and sitting anxiously on call, I still cannot decide if what I did feels truly satisfying. Not satisfying to my own end, but satisfying as in affecting any real change.
Sure, I got to work in Stage 2 for a couple of days and an overnight. I also spotted a dinghy off the Northeast coast of Lesvos that was carrying 20 refugees. I don’t say those things to brag about any sort of accomplishments or achievements, and I certainly want absolutely zero applause or recognition for any of the work I do abroad.
But when I take a step back and think about the last three weeks of my life — that flew by might I add — I don’t feel exhausted or as if I poured out my entire soul doing the work. If anything, I feel rejuvenated and fresh. This is the best — both mentally and physically — I have felt in a very long time.
Do I feel guilty or awful about feeling so good? Of course! I’d be lying through my teeth — keyboard rather — if I said otherwise. I wanted to feel exhausted, empty, and on the brink of falling asleep the entire way home. I wanted to feel as if I just finished a marathon that took everything in me to complete. Maybe instead of saying I wanted to feel that way I should say I expected to feel that way. Expectations are completely misguiding and — I’ve found — never actually the case.
Yet I choose to rely on them…
And as I have thought about the trip since I left just a short time ago, I’ve realized that feeling exhausted, empty, and on the brink of falling asleep the entire way home is two things: completely unhealthy and not what God desires or intends for us.
How could I ever do anything if my soul was empty? How could I serve refugees when the time came if I was exhausted?
One phrase I held onto while serving was said by the coordinator of another NGO we were working closely with. He said, “You only need to spot one dinghy in order to prove how necessary it is for your organization to be here.”
That kind of struck me. Only one dinghy? Why not two, three, 15? If you think about it though, no one else is really looking for them except the Turkish and Hellenic Coast Guards. The Turks definitely won’t tell us when a dinghy is coming — for more information on why, read about the E.U - Turkey agreement from 2016 — and the Hellenic Coast Guard isn’t always out on the water or spotting from their base in Molyvos.
We are a vital piece to the puzzle. It just doesn’t feel that way all of the time.
But the more I think about everything that happened in the past three weeks, the more content I am with everything the Lord did. He opened doors for me to openly talk about Him. He showed me that a career in journalism may not be what I actually do after graduation. He changed lives and moments every single day.
Since taking flight in Mytilini to begin the journey home, I have felt empty.
Not empty as in exhausted — empty as in lacking something. I feel as though I’m lacking substance in what I do. It’s difficult to describe.
I feel like my soul is thirsting for so much more. I feel as if I have this expansive space of air in my belly that isn’t and can’t be filled by anything.
Every time I think about the moment I eclipse the escalator in the Atlanta airport — every Atlantian’s sign of being home — I just get the air taken to of me.
I wonder if that’s because I have grown so used to traveling abroad for extended periods of time? It felt normal to venture into different countries trying to find my way from one destination to the next. My soul feels alive in those moments. Everywhere outside of America feels like home.
I wonder if it stems from feeling as if I didn’t “accomplish” enough in Greece this year? I spent so much time resting and relaxing that I feel like it ended up being more of a vacation in some aspects than a service/mission trip. I wasn’t there to get a slick tan — which didn’t happen at all because my farmer’s tan is still very permanent on my body — or to get some R&R. I was there to work, and work hard, dammit!
At least that’s how I saw it. Maybe to a fault?
Upon writing this, I’ve been back in America for about seven hours or so. All of this is extremely raw, fresh emotion that — I believe — goes on in the minds, hearts, and souls of people who go abroad to volunteer in difficult circumstances. This is the “processing” everyone says they need to do. It’s incredibly necessary.
I chose to process it this way — explicitly putting out jumbled thoughts, words, and emotions onto a website blog post to give those who may have never had the opportunity to go through this sort of processing the chance to kind of read what it’s like.
It is vastly different for everyone though. Every person processes differently, and every person walks away from different experiences feeling different ways. This is just how I feel after this one. Thinking about it now, it makes it seem like the trip was awful…
It wasn’t! I wish I was still there! I’m just experiencing a new set of emotions that I’ve never had to grapple with before. It’s a brand new life moment where I’m discovering even more about who I am. It’s pretty neat but also pretty scary.
So that’s where I sit — in the gap between vital and useless. If I had to describe it as a picture in my mind, I would say that I’m sitting cross-legged in a field that may be in the American Midwest with a mountain to my right and a deep canyon to my left. What dictates which geographic landscape I choose to conquer? God’s plan for my life? My own will? My selfish desires? My self-pity? My doubts? My fears? My achievements? My work ethic?
That’s the next chapter.