Monday, December 17, 2012

How Much is Enough? A Reflection on Guilt and Privilege

            This past week, I was working on my laptop on a grant application at the Health Center. I heard a knock at the door, and a pregnant woman entered from the waiting room, where about fifty other pregnant women were waiting for their prenatal check-ups. I asked if I could help her, and she said yes. She said that she needed money, and that she was worried about what she would do when the baby arrived. I told her that I didn’t have any money on me. It was true; I never carry money with me to the Health Center. The woman’s hands found the pockets of my white lab coat, which contained only a small notepad, a pen, and a minuscule bottle of hand sanitizer. I felt guilty, and trapped. She wasn’t taking no for an answer. I fumbled through some papers on the desk, trying to buy myself some time.  I felt her gaze follow me. 

She asked me again for money, and I repeated, even less sure of myself, that I didn’t have any.  The woman pursed her lips and pointed to my laptop lying on the desk in front of me. I wasn’t fooling anyone. My mind darted to my house, where my smartphone was lying on my desk. My mind continued around my room, surveying my worldly possessions that probably amounted to more than this woman’s entire yearly income. It was just the two of us in the room at the Health Center, and you could have heard a pin drop. We just stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity; her, with a look of disgust and sadness, me with a look of helplessness and guilt. Eventually, she turned and left the room, back to sit with the other pregnant mamas in the waiting room, and I was left alone with a sea of emotions and an inner battle.

You’re selfish and despicable. You couldn’t spare a few Rwandan francs to help that woman? Well…I can’t help everyone. Besides, I’m a volunteer and I already live a much simpler life here. I need money to live too. You’ve got to be joking. You mean you can’t go on the Internet a little less, or skip your morning coffee? You’re going on vacation to Zanzibar in a few days, and you’re trying to tell me you don’t have the money to help another suffering human being? Well, those are my comforts here. Peace Corps is a 24/7 job, and I haven’t gotten a break in nearly eight months. I’m not some kind of monk. Besides, I help people in lots of other ways. Yes, but you’re still choosing your own wants over her needs. What if she can’t afford to feed her baby? What if she can’t afford health insurance? What about that whole love-your-neighbor-as-yourself thing you say you believe in? If I gave that woman money, the other fifty women would have instantly come in and asked me for money too. I don’t have money to give to everyone, and I don’t want to be known as some kind of rich umuzungu. It’s just a couple weeks until Christmas, and you just turned away a pregnant woman. You might as well have just told her that there’s no room at the Inn.

Feeling guiltier than ever, I remembered a class in college where we were presented with various hypothetical moral dilemmas. One of the things we discussed was that money is (unfortunately) a zero-sum thing. If you spend a dollar, you can’t save that same dollar. The things we spend our money on show what our priorities are. If I have a certain amount of money, and I choose to spend my money on things like coffee and Internet, while I know that there are people in my own community without adequate shelter, families without healthcare, and babies who are so severely malnourished that they look like newborns, then I am making a very conscious choice about my priorities. I am choosing my pleasure over their very survival.

              It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt guilty in Rwanda, and I doubt it will be the last. Chalk it up to Catholic guilt, “for what I have done and what I have failed to do.” It’s not that the same moral dilemmas don’t exist in the U.S.; it’s just much harder to ignore here. I think it's a constant process of determining what is "enough" in my life. Rwanda has forced me to take a long, hard look at the way I live, both here and in America. Put simply, I failed that woman and her unborn child. It's a difficult thing, to practice what you preach. And I’ve just got to do a lot better than this. Guilt by itself is a useless emotion. It’s true that I can’t help every single person, but I’ve at least got to try. Now comes the hard part: putting thoughts and words into action.

"Live simply so that others can simply live." 


  1. This is amazingly written, and very honest, Claire, and thanks SO much for writing it. This was something I struggled with my entire time in Uganda... let me know if you figure out any answers cuz I'd love to hear them! Good luck with the struggle.

  2. It isn't just Catholic guilt. We Protestants have the same feelings. Call it Christian guilt. We are all taught that we should not be selfish. It's a constant struggle for those with a concious. If anyone finds the answer I hope they share! Free will causes us to lean towards our selfish desires and away from God's desire. I admire your deepest thoughts being shared with those of us reading your blog. Your words cause a lot of self-reflection.
    Matthew 25:45 (NIV) says "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."
    Wow! If that doesn't lay a guilt trip on me, nothing will.

  3. Very insightful post, Claire! I've been reading through your blog posts because I have been considering applying for the Peace Corps. I've done tons of research but what I would like to do more of is talk to as many current or returned PCVs as possible. Would it be possible to email you? My name is Marissa. Please let me know.

    Thanks a lot! :)

    1. Sure! I'd love to share my experiences. Shoot me an email at clairebrosnihan [at] gmail [dot] com!