This is a note for all those who’ve cried, “That’s it. I’ve lost faith in humanity,” or wept, “I give up. There’s nothing I can do to help.”
It’s a note for those of us who’ve tried to save the world, but slunk home with our heads down in shame. It’s for us millennials who are mocked for our idealism in the face today’s harsh realities.
I myself have hung my head low, traveling through each stage of disillusionment and their corresponding tears.
When I came back from India in 2006, I burst into tears in my high school photoshop class. My teacher Mr. Millet pulled up a chair besides me, hugged me, and listened through my sobs—“I can’t believe people live like that. They are just so poor. Dirt everywhere. Nothing is clean, no water, no nothing! We are so blessed in America.” Sweet tears, teenage tears, tears of shock and pity. Later as a grad student, I would look down on those tears: “Privileged private high schooler crying white man’s burden tears about poor people in the third world. Degrading pity.”
On the Turkey-Syria border in 2014, I listened to a Syrian activist tell his story. Assad imprisoned him for months—burning, beating, starvation filled his hours. Merely telling the story brought tears to his eyes. But not to mine. This was my job. Listening to these stories and problem solving with development and policy was my job. I had to be professional. All the graduate students in the room remained frozen in professionalism.
Then in Liberia in 2014, I cried angry tears: Men are disgusting pigs. Every single one of them. Liberian women stopped the decade-long civil war through nonviolent protests in 2000-2003, but now male teachers refuse female students good grades unless sexual favors are given. I screamed in blind rage because we’re such nasty creatures.
And then last month in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, I wept my resignation tears. I resigned myself to the knowledge that our world is built to perpetuate violence. We’re essentially cannibals, consuming the less privileged community beneath us. Where does your lifestyle comes from? That iPhone came from a human rights abuses production line. One slave laborer wrote you some poems before he jumped himself out of a window.
I asked my boss with teary eyes: “How do you escape the global-self harm?”
“You can’t. And I wish that still touched me, but it doesn’t anymore.”
“I’m sure it does. You just know how to cope,” I tried to reassure her.
“Cope so well that I no longer feel.”
“You feel it. You’re just being professional, which is highly needed in these emotionally tense situations.”
“No, I don’t. You could sit a starving child on my lap, and I wouldn’t blink.”
“Well…why do you say that?”
“I see you cry, and I don’t. I’ve seen too much. I wish I still cried, but I can’t. Trust me, you’re the sane one not me.”
“When did it stop? Or how did it stop?”
“When I heard a UN peacekeeper raping a child in the hotel room next door to mine, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it to make it stop.”
“Oh my god…”
“I wept the whole plane ride home. And after that I could never cry again.”
“But promise me one thing.”
“Never ever stop crying. Because once you’ve stopped crying that means you’ve become just like the bastards who start these conflicts.”
And so then you can cry those last tears upon realizing humanity is no longer worth crying over. You can weep uncontrollably until you stop. Just completely stop forever.
Or you can choose a brave heart, a sensitive heart that defies harsh realities. You cry again, allowing others to touch you. Your tears will stand defying the destruction and violence that seek to be the norm. Life is worth, in my forever idealistic mind, the defiance tears. Those are the tears that transform your heart and thereby transform the world.