Helplessness and Empowerment*

(For any readers who don’t know me, I have done feral cat rescue in the States for the past seventeen years and thought I was “done” with it, having left my last remaining five with dear friends for the duration of my time. )

All I can say at this point is that I must have some really ” bad ass” “cat karma” because I have just discovered,   in this country where I had yet to even see a cat, and only saw my first puppy this past weekend, in a city 1.5 hours away, that there is a kitten living in the roof of a house behind mine!!   Truly,  when I arrived, I was relieved that, in the absence of pets in Rwanda,  I wasn’t going to have to worry about starving cats multiplying with great abandon when I would not have the resources to do anything about them.  But it appears that this  is not to be.   Which brings me to the theme of this post — allowing myself to feel “helpless”.

I am someone who prefers to see what is good in a situation, to look on the “bright side”, if you will, rather than the “dark side”.  For those of you who know the Enneagram psychospiritual system  of psychology, I am an enneatype seven, referred to by some theorists in the field as the “epicure” or, by others, the “enthusiast”.   And while research in medicine has shown that people with a predilection towards “positive” thinking often live longer, the truth is that, just as any other personality type, it has its limitations.   And one of them is a reluctance to really feel that which is painful, to  even recognize danger when it is in front of us and, heaven forbid, to actually embrace  feelings of despair and helplessness.

Given my predilection for the positive side of life, it is possibly of great significance that I chose to come to a country that chose to confront and accept a terrible national experience and, wonders upon wonders, use it as the basis for national reconciliation and unification.   If you haven’t watched the movie Kinyarwanda that I suggested in an earlier post, you might want to do so now, as it takes the characters through not only the pain of the genocide, but the processes and values which emerged from it and brought them through it.

People here are no strangers to feelings of helplessness and despair, watching their neighbors kill their families, seeing the very worst that people can do to one another.   Equally, they are veterans at confronting the horrors that are hidden in the fabric of human existence, bringing them into the light, examining them for what they really are, forgiving themselves and one another, and then committing  to keeping the memory alive as a tool of strength in both  national and international arenas so that no one will ever forget why we are here, what our purpose is, so that we will all remember each and every day that we are here to live, not to die, and that, in order to succeed, we must work together and fully accept the entirety of life, not just the parts that we like.

Which brings me to the kitten in my backyard.   In all likelihood it will not survive.  Certainly its litter mate, which I have only seen once, will not.    I would never have even known the kittens were there but for the vocalizations of the one.   And probably the mother cat who went to what she thought was a safe place to have her litter will continue to do so, despite the fact that once she weans them and leaves them, they have no way to get food and, in fact, no way to climb down.   So there will continue to be a cycle of kittens living and dying in the roof of the house behind my house that I may remain helpless to change.

This is not the first time that this has happened to me.   Another “mom cat” repeatedly had litters that lived and then died  in an abandoned building on the campus where I went to medical school.  This was, in fact, where I first became involved in feral cat rescue.    There, at least, I was finally able to effect change, i.e. I was not completely helpless — I rescued one kitten from a fire escape where it got lost, and I eventually caught the mother, pregnant with what was to be her last litter, and saved  them all.   But this was not without having to also watch, from afar, other kittens appear and disappear over time.   And so I suspect it will be here, although I will continue to leave food, and I will venture out to see if by any stroke of good fortune, I can find a trap in which I could catch them.   I have determined that  Amazon does not deliver cat traps to Rwanda!

But the real question here is not whether or not I can “save” a life, albeit a small one, but whether I can allow myself to truly feel how helpless I feel here at times.  I feel helpless when I cannot express what I want to say to someone, despite being fluent in 3 of the 4 languages spoken here.  I feel helpless when I cannot hear what they have to say to me.   I feel helpless when children come begging, or when young men in the road try to taunt me because I am a umuzungu.    And, of course, now that I have a home in Florida, I am helpless to do anything but watch the news as Irma churns toward it!   By next week, I could be on a plane winging my way back to the U.S. to deal with damage to my new home, should it occur and be bad enough to require my personal attention.

If I am to be truly honest, I often feel helpless here.   The kitten, or rather my feelings about it, are the tip of a much larger iceberg, the underbelly of which lies below the surface of my consciousness.   I do not welcome feelings of helplessness.   I usually avoid feeling helpless whenever I can.  I am what one might describe as “fiercely independent” and I recognize that this is one strategy for avoiding feelings that I cannot control what happens to me.   This is, in a sense, a “disability”.    Because, if I cannot  embrace helplessness, if I cannot accept that feeling helpless is as much a part of an authentic life as feeling empowered, then I am, in reality, only living half a life.   I cannot help but wonder whether Rwandans have, because of their ability to accept and use helplessness as the gateway to personal and national empowerment,  a fuller experience of what it means to be human than I have.

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.

4 thoughts on “Helplessness and Empowerment*

  1. Yes. I have always known that about you. When you meditate, perhaps you can open just a bit to the feeling of helplessness.


  2. Hi Ani, I miss you! This is a beautiful piece that you wrote. I feel like I have to do the opposite sometimes. Opening up to being more powerful and independent. I have been able to do this best through the meditation you taught me.


    1. I miss you too! And yes, I have watched you open up to being more powerful and independent. There is room for both in this life. Thank you for being in my life.


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