Does humanitarian work inevitably leave you bitter?
March 25, 2009 7:03 AM   Subscribe

My friend is going to Kenya and Uganda to do some humanitarian work this summer. She's afraid that when she returns she'll be disgusted by the shallowness of people's problems and concerns back home, to the point of being unable to relate to anyone. Is this likely, and if so, can it be prevented? Should it be prevented?

As part of her preparation my friend went to a talk given by someone who worked as a midwife in Darfur. The midwife spoke about how when she arrived back home, things people would complain about (like, say, bad haircuts) made her furious because they were so disconnected from the far more serious problems going on in the rest of the world. She even told one of her best friends, "I don't give a shit about your problems," apparently. All this worries my friend, who's planning on going into health development later in life; she fears becoming bitter and disillusioned and constantly frustrated after a few years in that line of work.

For my own part, I am obviously not too keen on getting that sort of response if I try to lean on my friend for support after she's gone and come back. But the truth is, it seems that I would deserve it, because the things that trouble my life are pretty petty and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and I really don't do anything philanthropic at all (well, I give to charity, but I consider that a minimum expectation rather than something significant). Is it best to just accept that that's the sort of outlook - one that seems quite justified - that my friend may grow into, and that consequently she may drift away from me? Do selfish people like me only deserve friends who are similarly selfish?

I'm sorry if this is rather a mishmash of questions; I am asking partly on her behalf, but also on mine. Any advice - anecdotes, correction of my premises, whatever you think would help - would be deeply appreciated. Thanks in advance, MeFi.
posted by daelin to Human Relations (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I really think this is a case of "cross that bridge when you come to it". There's nothing you can say to your friend NOW that will guarantee a specific response back from her several years down the road.

With regard to your own perceived shallowness, that's something that you can take care of yourself and need not (in fact SHOULD not) be related in any way to what your friend is doing overseas.
posted by modernnomad at 7:11 AM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: I have a slightly similar experience and depressing news.

Some years back, I covered a war. It was very terrible. Death, terror, people in horrible circs and nothing you could do to help them. People dying because I didn't have water to give them - like that.
When I came back, it wasn't anger over little things so much as a vast hazy disconnect: I couldn't get interested in the little idiocies of "normal" life, and though I felt some frustration at some of what my friends and family seemed to worry about, I didn't get angry so much as float off in my own world, unable to relate to them.
The depressing part is that almost all went away in less that a month. Humans are frighteningly adaptable. (Or I could be super shallow. There's always that.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:13 AM on March 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

It struck me that I don't know how to answer this, because I'd probably end up doing the same thing.

Putting it into perspective is probably hard for people, who probably cannot handle easily the giant range of irritation that people go through - if a bad haircut can ruin your day, think what you'd feel like if you had to risk being murdered while you got water. To be honest, I'd probably kill myself if I was in the conditions some of those people were in .

She might talk to a therapist who has experience dealing with this. If she keeps in mind that many people just haven't been exposed to the crap that goes on in some places, she might be a little more understanding, but that'll make her no less pissed about the fact that most people are sheltered, uninformed morons.

Use this as a teaching moment, too - if you're aware you're selfish, be less selfish. Find a cause you care about!
posted by kldickson at 7:14 AM on March 25, 2009

It's not as though there is one standard way of reacting to humanitarian work. After a short time spent among the poor in a different country, I certainly found that I stopped complaining about my own problems, but having a broader view of the world doesn't excuse dickish behavior toward your friends. It's certainly possible to cultivate a willingness to sympathize with the frustrations of people around you, whether they are large or small, and some of the most gracious people I know are people who have poured their lives into helping the downtrodden and still manage to approach well-off Americans with compassion and friendliness.

It's not the situation, it's the person.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:17 AM on March 25, 2009 [6 favorites]

I'm going to second CunningLinguist. Although I didn't experience it directly, I saw a friend go through it. They adjusted after a few weeks, not all the way back to pre-trip... just mellowed.
posted by syntheticfaith at 7:17 AM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: I had a doctor friend who went to Jamaica to do free clinic work. When she came back she was experiencing a bit of what your friend is afraid of. She found it helpful to think of everyone's problems as 'relative.' So using your problem of a bad haircut, my friend would think to herself, "This is this person's reality right now. It doesn't make them a bad person. It just means they're fortunate to not have any harder things to deal with." It also helped her to have a couple of really good friends she could vent to, without them judging her or them feeling like she was judging them. It helps to just keep repeating, "This is his/her reality," almost like a mantra. Make sure your friend is able to share her experiences fully but also don't let her "get away" with judging people for what she considers trivial problems. That's not helpful for anyone.

By supporting your friend, you're giving back as well. If she didn't have your support and the support of her other friends and family, she wouldn't be able to give so much of herself.
posted by cooker girl at 7:18 AM on March 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

You have to let your friend do what she wants and feel what she wants. There is a chance she could come back and not be interested in any shallow problems anymore, but I think it would be unwise to try to prevent it. I will however state that far from becoming disillusioned and bitter due to doing the work she will probably find immense satisfaction at actually being able to do something to help.

She may drift away from you, but if you truly want to be unselfish you need to let her go down her own path and not manipulate it. That's just a recipe for disaster.
posted by gadha at 7:18 AM on March 25, 2009

This is basically reverse culture shock. It will wear off with time.
posted by nitsuj at 7:25 AM on March 25, 2009

I have done many mission trips to areas that were very interesting. Two times to the very mountainous areas of Guatemala. Although these people were very poor, and had nothing, they might not be in exaclty the same situation as to where your friend is going. However, after returning from each of those trips, I have felt better as a person. Yes there was some transition times that were interesting, but overall, I was able to awaken other people to some of the problems in the places I went. I think being able to do presentations and explanations of what I observed helped a bunch. Even though you feel helpless in the situations, if you can shed some light, or open peoples eyes to the problems, that might affect one or more people to become involved. Always remember that your doing as much as you can while you are there, you can't save the entire world!! You can have an influence on other people to help those in need!
posted by snoelle at 7:28 AM on March 25, 2009

My little brother (greedy, spoiled, no regard for anyone else) spent a summer in Kenya and came back a changed man. My mother said on his first or second day back, he opened the fridge and stared at it for a second, then said quietly, "I will never complain again". He left his favorite Frisbee there (sounds silly, but he's a dedicated Ultimate player and apparently this was something of a sacrifice). He has started keeping in touch with all the siblings, become financially responsible and even generous, showed more compassion in general, and is basically a really great, cool, empathetic person. He plans to do a lot more traveling.

Some of his initial "privilege guilt" went away after a while, but I think the lessons will always be in his head, which is only a good thing. I don't think it's something you can fully prepare for and it's definitely a bridge to be crossed when it's arrived at, but it's good that your friend is expecting this reaction.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:59 AM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Perhaps it would help her to consider that, unless she happens to meet the unluckiest person alive, everyone has someone who is worse off from them. Yes, complaining about a bad haircut sounds shallow when there are people starving to death. But if she meets a Kenyan who is upset because she has to walk upteenth miles everyday to get food, would she berate her for complaining when other people have no food? It's all relative and it's all on a scale. It's not fair to act as if one can decide at what point someone's experiences are trivial. Maybe looking at it in those terms will help her stay grounded.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:06 AM on March 25, 2009 [9 favorites]

My own anecdotal experience(s): I was a Peace Corps volunteer in an African country, and traveled for several months through other countries in Africa. Some of the poverty I saw was extreme: people couldn’t afford to send a kid to school or basic anti-malarial medication, and the homeless in some of these countries…no limbs, with kids, sleeping in the streets.

Coming back to the States: For the first few years, the indifference and lack of interest in other countries by people quite a bit. For example, walking down the street, and seeing televisions and couches by the curb – in some of the countries I traveled, people would take tires or cans and reuse them, so the waste really disturbed me. Another point that really bothered me was the seeming disinterest by people in some of the political problems (eg, genocide in Zaire/Rebublique de Congo). I never took this out hostility on others and nor would I, it was just puzzlement.

Solution for your friend: Please don’t take this as harsh, but I often looked at the program I participated it in – in the grand scheme of things, it did little to nothing (perhaps use the anger to help improve the program or find others that are better). Also, most people in the States (just some of the people I knew) were never exposed to any of this, so don’t get mad at them.

If I was more outgoing, I would use it is an opportunity to educate others. For example, go speak at a school and tell them about conditions in other countries. Better yet, if you find a great program that helps people in these countries or you are an ongoing participant, go speak about it – people may donate, and do the best they can to participate and help out.

Now: 20 some years later, this is all still with me. I consider myself and most people I run across, even those struggling with bills, as very, very well off (vs the rest of the world) – and another part of me feels enriched for having the chance to have seen other cultures, people, etc. I was lucky that I even had a chance to travel to see these other places, but I don't have anger towards people here who are concerned about haircuts, etc. In fact, to me, that is also a connection between other cultures - lots of pointless concerns. Not sure what point I am trying to make here at the end, but for me, some of this never went away.
posted by Wolfster at 8:13 AM on March 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

My tack is to go to a nice resort every once in a while. Interspersing the opulent with the impoverished makes me more forgiving of my middle-class friend's lack of perspective.
posted by kristymcj at 8:24 AM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: I do this kind of work full time now. I live in Kenya (one of the better-off countries here, I should point out) and work in the poorest countries in Africa. So I can at least speak from my own experience.

People told me, before I first moved to Africa, and during my first stay here (about a year, all told), that my reverse culture shock would be much worse than anything I ever experienced in coming over here.

I had very flexible expectations when I first came here. I think most people do - you have no idea what to expect, so while some things may leave you a bit aghast (the first time I drove through a puddle that a child was filling a drinking water Jerrycan from)...very quickly you cease to be phased by much. If you're not careful, a rather pessimistic cynicism can come sweeping in (we loosely refer to it as "TIA" - a term you can learn about from the movie Blood Diamond).

Your friend is about to get a whole lot of new perspective in a very compressed time frame, and this has a high potential to change people. People change in different ways - some for the better, some not. It depends on the person. I know many people who have returned unable to cope and reconcile what they have seen with what they know to be "life." I know many who have quit and given up in disgust more at the size of the problem and the seeming inability to affect real change. I know some people who still believe something can be done. I know a few even who are simply compelled to come back. And I know some who go back and quickly forget what they ever saw. It will change your friend, but its hard to predict how.

I remember when I came back to NYC (where I had lived for about 6 years before moving to Africa), I wasn't so much appalled as just at a loss to reconcile things, unable to see anything in the same light again. Poor people no longer seemed poor - they generally had enough clothes and most of their teeth and could get a bed or a meal if they needed it. I could only see naked children with distended bellies standing in the dust when I looked at them. A $15-25 main course used to be fairly average for a nice dinner out with a friend or two, maybe even a bit on the cheaper side depending on the neighborhood. Now I could only see worthless stacks of Zimbabwean currency and empty shelves in the grocery store. A drink at a club with friends, which costs more than the monthly rent to get a roof over someone's head. Everything had a new value in my mind, and nobody could see that but me.

There wasn't anything maddening about that. This was normal life for these people. Waiting in line for a club in Meatpacking. Catching a cab to church because you're running late. Cutting a 4-digit rent check. Watching the marathon from a friend's fire escape. There's nothing wrong with these things. They are normal life things.

But they were no longer normal to me. They didn't feel right - I couldn't justify what I knew was going on in another part of the world with what I was seeing going on there. It didn't make it wrong for anyone else, my friends and family who I love very much are still there and living their lives and I don't think any less of any of them. But I had changed, and I couldn't stay there and do that anymore.

she fears becoming bitter and disillusioned and constantly frustrated after a few years in that line of work.

She should. The problems are massive and the responses are always nothing if not characterized by their own inadequacies. Life over here is not easy, work over here even less so. Things move slow, and sometimes not at all. There's such a dearth of problems that in many instances you feel as if you're just trying to prioritize which ones to respond to. A lot of people burn out. Probably most. I very well may.

My work is mainly strategic, I work in offices directing organizational development and the business process change for a huge humanitarian NGO. Every once in a while, though, I find myself seeing the end product of my team's work, and it always makes me think back to the first time I really saw that.

We were hours into the bush - far past areas where electricity or running water had ever pushed their development into. I was sitting on the front bumper of our Landcruiser, in the waning light, talking to a field logistician about how we would get more concrete there to build the bricks for the school building that the workmen were digging the foundations of, while we talked.

It was late in the afternoon but the children from the other school buildings behind us were still in class, their singing coming across to us on the breeze. 300 children, many whom had walked hours to get there. They were the afternoon class, the morning class was a separate 300, so that the school could teach twice as many. The new building would add another 100 to the morning and afternoon both. 600 kids who never would have been able to learn to read and write if it weren't for the work that my colleagues were there and doing, thanks to donors kind enough to support them. I took pause in that moment and knew briefly that for all of the wasted hours in customs and visa offices, all the donor dollars lost to the endemic fraud and corruption, all the political arguments around development vs. relief, all the people back home that I don't know how to explain all of this to...for all of that, still this was something good and right. This was something with purpose and meaning. This is something I could look back on when I'm old and say: I did what I could with what I had.

Tell your friend to focus on those. They make it all worth it.

I always feel like a self-righteous prig whenever I try to explain some or any or all of this to anyone, but you asked, and there it is. I'm not trying to pat my own back, I have it very good over here and in general feel I should be a bit ashamed for how easy the nature of my work is, compared to many that I respect greatly over here.

Also, I hope none of what I said would discourage your friend. At the end of the day, I wish I had come here sooner. I think its the best thing she'll ever do. Feel free to give her my email in profile if she has any questions or needs any help...

posted by allkindsoftime at 8:33 AM on March 25, 2009 [28 favorites]


The midwife spoke about how when she arrived back home, things people would complain about (like, say, bad haircuts) made her furious because they were so disconnected from the far more serious problems going on in the rest of the world. She even told one of her best friends, "I don't give a shit about your problems,"

is, bluntly, a personal problem on the midwife's part. Dressing it up in morality and saintliness is kind of crap. I have experienced this in a lot of people who work for charities or with children- they find it very easy to be incredibly kind and giving in their work, but they're often appallingly inconsiderate to others in their day-to-day lives.

One explanation I heard was this: Charity work, or working with children, is a one-way relationship. The people on the receiving end need you very very much. It is not really possible for the giver to enter into an equal relationship with the give-ee. I'm not saying charity work isn't incredibly laudable, it is; but it's not the same as maintaining real relationships with people on the same social strata, who are completely free to take you or leave you as they see fit, or to get angry when you beat them over the head with your halo.

So that, in my opinion, is what she needs to watch out for. The whole "perspective" thing is completely bogus. I just don't believe the human mind works like that. I have never in my life felt better about my own problems by thinking about how much worse others have it. that just makes me feel:

a) still just as bad about my own problems
b) additionally bad about the people who have it worse than me
and for an added bonus!
c)guilty for feeling bad about my own "trivial" problems
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:58 AM on March 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Is it best to just accept that that's the sort of outlook - one that seems quite justified - that my friend may grow into, and that consequently she may drift away from me? Do selfish people like me only deserve friends who are similarly selfish?

I went through this more or less when I lived in Romania a few years after the fall of the Ceausescus. While it's nothing like doing relief work in Africa, it was definitely a poorer place than I'd ever been and the people were suffering from a woeful lack of things, both material goods as well as information and education about what the world beyond Romania looked like. I came back to the US and was freaked out by the wealth and options and opportunities that people had here and yeah there was a certain amount of "screw your problems" feeling on my part to people complaining about the high cost of airline tickets or how hard it is to get a cab.

I think everyone deals with this in a different way, obviously. I decided to basically keep doing the sort of work that I had been doing there -- educational work about technology for people who didn't really know anything -- back in the US. People who don't know things don't know it, whether it's because they've lived in a crappy dictatorship or other reasons. I had also been living pretty "low on the food chain" before I left and I continued to do that in the US. It's really only been in the last year or so that I've been in a position where I'm earning enough to have what I feel is "spare" cash for things like philanthropy, shareware fees, whatever.

So, you're worried about your friendship. I wouldn't. It's a sort of Schroedinger's cat situation, you won't know until your friend gets back. The best thing you can do is be open to your friend's experiences and attitudes and continue to be a good friend, whatever that means. If you are already, as it sounds, possibly a little critical of your own life, use the time your friend is away for some introspection. Do you want to be, as you put it "selfish" or might you want to try branching out? I know it seems like there are people out there solving problems and then there are people who are just ... not, but really everyone has problems.

My general approach has been to try to maintain a level of compassion and openness to the many different sorts of people out there. Sure you have a different level of discomfort if you're worried about your next meal rather than worried about your next cab, but there's a continuum of troubles and most of us are on it somewhere. If your friend is a good person she will likely come back a good person, though her outlook may have changed. She may decide that her life needs to change, but you may decide similar things in the same time period for other reasons. Just the fact that you are asking these questions indicates that you are aware that you have a growing and shifting friendship but that you are concerned about your friend and also yourself. I wish you luck.
posted by jessamyn at 8:59 AM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Wolfster - your friend can use her experiences as an opportunity to educate others on her return. The changes will all be on her end, and some of her feelings towards others could be feelings about her past self, or her present inability to change things. She could stay involved, but remember that her experiences are hers alone, and she'll have to educate others for them to see the world through her eyes, but this doesn't mean preaching and condemning.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:09 AM on March 25, 2009

The midwife spoke about how when she arrived back home, things people would complain about (like, say, bad haircuts) made her furious because they were so disconnected from the far more serious problems going on in the rest of the world.

The worst thing to ever happen to you is the worst thing that ever happens to you. Humans are incredibly adaptive and seem to have a set point on some kind of misery index. So, that bad haircut really affects your mood almost as much as not having a stable place to live. Evolution has no incentive to teach us the difference between trivially bad things and really bad things. The reptilian part of our brains say 'BAD' and we react. There's no logic there, just emotion.

Think of all the fatal diseases out there that dont cause a lot of pain, but end up killing you. Like stories of people with brain tumors who have no symptoms but find out that they may only have months to live. Now imagine how much a non-fatal ulcer hurts or a knee injury. Evolution didnt build us to be perfect. Cut people some slack.

Im sure once she's back in the states she'll be complaining about prime-time tv lineup in no time.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:24 AM on March 25, 2009

Best answer: Absolutely, CunningLinguist. Not so much "Im sure once she's back in the states she'll be complaining about prime-time tv lineup in no time."

I have to say that coming back from working with the poor on another continent is a very hard adjustment, maybe the hardest adjustment of my life, but yes she will adjust, unfortunately. When I came back from my own work in India I did not want to lose what I had gained there, but without being there and having to adjust to home it just happens. Yes, I felt no one could understand me, my parents were obsessed with how thin they thought I was, Americans seemed naïve, closed off, cynical, over-intellectual, and the news acted as if the rest of the world did not exist.

Does humanitarian work inevitably leave you bitter?
I think it depends on how sensitive, emotional a person you are. It made me feel isolated for a time, and I still miss my experience terribly. I was recently in a conversation with a friend who was yelling at me abut how exploited the kids from "Slumdog Millionaire" were at the Oscars. I couldn't get her to understand the horror that is their life otherwise and it was impossible. It left me quite sad for the world, for the pettiness of the richest country in the world, and frustrated at my own ineptitude. I think bitter is too simple a word for the web of emotions it leaves you with.

your friend can use her experiences as an opportunity to educate others on her return.
I haven't read this entire thread so apologies, but I wanted to comment on this. I think this is a good idea, but this can be very hard. To constantly explain, sometimes fight for your perspective, against people's ignorance, stereotypes, cowardice, insecurities. It can be very lonely to put yourself in a room of people who expect you to educate them. The responsibility and isolation can be heavy.

I actually would suggest something different to help her: actively seeking out people who do understand her experience, those who have done the same kind of work or been to the same places. I wish Meetup existed when I came home. Keeping an active web of support and understanding is very important.
posted by scazza at 10:08 AM on March 25, 2009

Dressing it up in morality and saintliness is kind of crap.
Chastising people for complaining about seemingly mundane things because you've been to Africa and you've seen real suffering is just another form of elitism. "I am caring and compassionate. I gave up all my creature comforts in order to help the unfortunates in (insert Third World country here). I am obviously a better person than you." You never know what type of pain and suffering that old guy in front of you who is complaining about the long supermarket checkout line has seen. He may have once been imprisoned and tortured in a POW camp. I used to work with a woman whose husband was dx'd with ALS. She eventually had to quit in order to take care of him full-time, but while she was still in the office she would occasionally remark how she'd never complain again about, say, having to get up so early in the morning, because she could at least physically get up out of bed, and walk to the bathroom on her own, etc., and she had never really appreciated something so simple before. Yet she'd cuss up a blue streak when the copy machine in our department was out of service, and she had to walk across the building to use the other one.

Suppose when your friend arrives home from Uganda she waits in vain at the luggage carousel and then discovers that the airline has misplaced all of her luggage. The person who was going to pick her up at the airport never shows, and she stands at the curb looking hopefully in the distance for two hours before having to spend money on a taxi because no buses run between the airport and her home. Will she gripe about it, or walk away whistling a happy tune?
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:00 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I spent two years in Uganda, and when i came home I did indeed have less patience and respect for certain problems. But. In much the same way that your friend will hopefully learn to accept aspects of african life that bother her (like the fact that women are considered property, etc), she will likely also learn to accept aspects of her 'regular' life that bother her.

A couple very important things to consider though:
1) Having a more informed and critical eye on the world is a good thing.
2) Being prepared and aware of her mental health is the best prevention you can ask for.
3) She needs to stop being so afraid that she's going to suddenly and irreversably turn into a saint. Or into a judgemental asshole. (Depends on how you slice the interpretation.) As other folks have noted, it's crap/bullshit/egotistical/naive.
4) Going away for only the summer virtually guarrantees that she will only understand the issues and problems over there at only their most superficial level, which is likely to accerbate the problem. Without understanding the deeper and more systemic problems there, she will likely come back with some skewed beliefs. Its probably a good idea for her to do as much reading - by journalists embedded in the country, by blogger, by online local newspapers - to get as big a picture as possible.
posted by Kololo at 1:02 PM on March 25, 2009

Haven't seen the width and breadth of serious poverty mentioned above, but I've seen a good measure of serious poverty by U.S. standards, been long past the road ends and seen disturbing things.

One thing that can frustrate me is seeing news reports about where I've been, often realizing that a good bit is wrong, lacks context, etc. I experienced this today, thought, "I was reading years ago in the local English-language paper that the ball had started rolling in a certain direction and it was presented in Time magazine as a big surprise. I've friends with whom I talk about things media, but I don't rant (I hope.)

Your friend may find herself frustrated if the places she goes come up in conversation and someone comes across that they know all about it because they read a National Geographic article.

My experiences definitely broadened my perspective, boosted my general sense of gratitude.

As someone said, things are relative... and we all have our moments.

I went out today, took my camera, was so pissed off at myself for leaving the memory card in the computer.
posted by ambient2 at 1:07 PM on March 25, 2009

Seconding Wolfster - your friend can use her experiences as an opportunity to educate others on her return.

I think this is very unlikely to work. People very often misunderstand your intentions when you think you are "educating" others. You'd probably be seen as self-righteous and elitist. What you learn from experience does not usually translate very well in ordinary "let me tell you about..." style conversations - that's why writing classes always say, show, don't tell, and even a novel isn't going to really teach someone something once the book's been put down.

Experience teaches you things, and you can use those lessons in many ways - usually, you can adopt those lessons forgivingly rather than angrily, and just recognize that not everyone has had the same experiences as you. You can change your own life positively and occasionally affect others with your attitude and way of life. But it's pretty much never a good idea to try to become a missionary to convert everyone else to the awakened perspective you have found.
posted by mdn at 1:12 PM on March 25, 2009

She's afraid that when she returns she'll be disgusted by the shallowness of people's problems and concerns back home, to the point of being unable to relate to anyone. Is this likely, and if so, can it be prevented? Should it be prevented?

Why prevent it? She'd prefer to live with shallow perceptions?

I came from a well-to-do family and was spoiled by the standards of my country) Just as I'd graduated from high school, the war began. I lost my home, my family, friends. I suffered injuries and illness and a lot of mental trauma.

Now I'm in America, where most people I meet don't know what happened to me (specifically) or my country (generally.) I'm in a position to harbor a lot of bad feeling and to judge others very harshly against my experience. And to be honest, I have my moments. But they're not a dominant part of my personality. I still enjoy nice things without any guilt. I sometimes complain about my haircut or the weather - superficial things. People are resilient; they may suffer culture shock, but they generally will rebound, too. Of course, some things stick with you. I'm a much more grateful person for whatever good comes my way than I was before. I'm more generous and kinder. I have a greater sympathy for people than I ever did.

The worst thing about the war was being trapped and not knowing it would end. Your friend's trip offers her insight into the drastically different lives of others, as well as a guaranteed trip back home. As much as I learned as the result of the war I lived through, it would have been better to learn half as much as with some assurance that the world would return to certainty with her return. She'd be a fool not to go, and the emotional / guilt issues will mostly evaporate, leaving behind a slightly better person.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:42 PM on March 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you very much, everyone, for your kind and insightful answers. I've marked a few as Best that were especially helpful, but I do appreciate everyone who took the time to type out a thoughtful reply. And I shall be doing some hard reflecting on my own selfishness, as kldickson suggested. Again, thanks all.
posted by daelin at 3:00 AM on March 26, 2009

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