My lungs tighten. I can feel heat pour beneath my skin and throughout my body. My breathing is fractured and a rush of tingling and faint pain enter my head. When its quiet, I can almost hear my heart pound.
I live for this feeling.
This is how I feel when I’ve reached what for me is an absolute mental high (and not a heart attack, promise). I get this combination of physical sensations only when I am feeling both passionately livid and deeply empowered. It arises from witnessing and becoming aware of the injustice and suffering that humans experience and subsequently pouring out all of my empathy. But instead of feeling hopeless, depressed, and emptied, I get filled with this sometimes overwhelming excitement and motivation for what I can do. The literal feeling of, “it doesn’t have to be this way.”
The most potent example I have of this feeling occurred when I was working at the IRC this past summer. I was doing some home visits with an interpreter late on a Friday afternoon. As we were walking down the sidewalk, passing apartment complex after apartment complex in the hot East Baltimore sun, I started thinking about something an old Bhutanese gardener had said earlier that week. She said, “after my son was killed, gardening was the only thing I had to live for.” I had thought this statement was incredibly powerful and was intrigued. To me, growing food was simply an interesting hobby–it was hard for me to fathom having nothing else to bring my life pleasure and meaning. Perhaps it was mistakenly interpreted. Out of curiosity, I asked the interpreter about it.
It turned out that the interpreter was actually the granddaughter of this profound old woman. I immediately felt horrible for mentioning it and had abruptly realized I should have known better: interpreters employed by the IRC are often former refugees with close ties to families in the area. On top of that, the refugee community is incredibly tight-knit. She began to tell the story of this son who was killed: the man had recently been resettled in the U.S. after being pushed out of his home country of Bhutan after the government instituted ethnic cleansing. In his first weeks on American soil–with no English or citizenship–he knew he wanted to work. The interpreter, knowing more English and more about American culture, agreed to help him find a job. He obtained a work permit and took the first job he could get: working 12 hour shifts at the Under Armour factory. On his first day, he rose at the early hours of the morning and went on his way. However, the interpreter realized that she had neglected to tell him he needed his work permit. She frantically called him to tell him this. He went back to retrieve the permit with a young boy by his side. Upon walking back, an unknown man stopped him and put a gun to his head and told him to give him all he had. The Bhutanese man had not a penny to his name at this point and was carrying nothing. The unknown man didn’t believe him and shot him in the head: instantly killing him and putting the young boy in the hospital for 6 weeks.
We, by nothing but painful coincidence, happened to be standing in front of the bush where the killing happened. The interpreter pointed to the bush with tears streaming from her eyes. She went on to talk about how incredible this man was, how exceptionally motivated and compassionate he was. She told me she couldn’t sleep for months because she thought it was all her fault.
I often pride myself on how I am a personal therapist for all of my friends, but in this moment I felt absolutely useless and triggering. There was pain and injustice from every angle: a son with unreal motivation who died too soon, a young boy who was hurt needlessly, a mother who lost a son, a woman who burdened herself with guilt. I started thinking more broadly about the refugee experience: how these people suffer from some of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, manage to survive the misery of refugee camps, and if they are lucky enough to be the 1% that the U.S. government agrees to resettle, they get to live in the poorest and most crime ridden neighborhoods in the country with few trees or familiarity in sight.
To no surprise, I left this conversation truly shaken. As I drove home, I cried and felt dirty–dirty for all the privilege I had. Dirty for living in a country like the U.S. where such crime is the common occurrence of a broken system. But then it all hit me and swung full circle: if this woman, who has suffered more than I could ever imagine, finds solace in planting some things in the ground and touching the earth, god, I need to do everything I can to make this happen.
I think food is fantastic. I think its far beyond a source of energy for our bodies: its something that culturally unites us, brings us pleasure, and nourishes our bodies and minds. I love food more than almost anything: I love growing it, cooking it, eating it, talking about it–but my heart is not in the New Roots Garden project for the food–its in it for the power that I think this garden will have, to bring those who’ve suffered the solace and re-connection with the earth that they deserve.