Field Notes
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Field notes from Colombia: Are our questions necessary?

 

A sculpture of a woman fishing alone on top of a building in La Candelaria. A banana hangs at the end of her rod.

In theoverpacking era of my life, which was more recently than my currently minimalist self would like to admit, I was that tiny person dragging a suitcase one and a half times her size through a train station with a broken escalator and politely refusing all offers of help. Even though I was sweating. Even though the suitcase weighed more than me. Even though the last thing I wanted to do was drag that monster up the stairs.It wasn’t out of too fervent an embrace of the “Stranger-Danger” doctrine; on the contrary, some of the moments that have fueled my faith in humanity have been born out of conversations with strangers in liminal states. It wasn’t out of too paranoid an attachment to my stuff or too strong a need to prove my own beastly strength. Rather, my stubborn insistence on lugging extraordinary loads unassisted stems from having been taught a twisted definition of self-sufficiency, the meaning of which was tautological to not needing — not needing people, not needing help, not needing anything or anyone that resides outside of myself.

When it became apparent that I would leave my homeland in Greece to attend college in the United States, I was taught how to plunge a toilet and how to change a lightbulb. In the eyes of a Greek mother in the pre-YouTube era, those were skills that could not go unlearned and which meant that her daughter would, at least for some time, not need a plumber, electrician, or live-in boyfriend. Proud as I am of my independence and my ability to live with an unclogged toilet, as I grow up, I increasingly wish I had also been taught dependence.

With apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his ode to self-reliance, there is beauty to needing others. It is in those moments that I realize the world is connected in ways that I cannot deny and in which I experience my own smallness not as a handicap, but as an opportunity to marvel. Two weeks ago, I shared — not necessarily with an intention to lament — that research can be deeply solitary and last week I treaded on the thin line between solitude and loneliness. Late last week, I received the joyful news that my research protocol has received the full approval of the Institutional Review Board, the body that assesses various parameters of one’s research ethics, such as the ways they obtain meaningful consent, the ways they protect the confidentiality, privacy, and security of their research participants, and whether the benefits of the research outweigh the potential risks. The last step of this process required ensuring that my consent forms and interview questions translated into Spanish still matched the original spirit of the English questions I crafted and the Review Board approved.

And that is how pieces of my research landed in Tunis and London and Jaffa and Boston and Mexico City and Washington DC and Guatemala City, where generously patient friends gave all my Por qué’s and Cómo‘s their appropriate accents and every sentence its subjunctive form. Essayist Sloane Crosley jokes that the lengthy ‘acknowledgments’ section of her book “says everything good about the generosity of the thankees and nothing good about my ability to dress and feed myself.” I feel similarly about needing an international army of research midwives to birth this project — and yet, there is something appropriate about having my loved ones read over the words to check the faithfulness of their translation, to check that they indeed tell the truth, to ask questions about the questions.

While I clumsily discover the beauty of needing help, I am also questioning a different need: that of the need to know. Throughout my studies of mass atrocities, scholars and practitioners alike have emphasized ‘clarification of the truth’ as a goal of transitional justice. Simply put, understanding the causes, manifestations, and consequences of violence at a mass scale is important both for the prevention of it in the future and for any attempts at ‘reconciliation’, even though the latter is increasingly becoming a questioned, dubious term in my field. But, at the individual level, as as researcher, it is still challenging for me to ask questions that prod at uncovering a version of truth, when I know these questions to be deeply painful and personal. Yes, they are the ‘approved questions,’ the ones the Review Board considers acceptable and ethical and ‘safe’, to the extent that inquisitiveness can be safe in these settings. At the same time, the benefits of research at times feel too abstract and remote to justify unearthing painful memories and poking at scarring truth as though the questions are a stick that stokes the fire. I believe in research, and I believe in the hunt for truth as a goal of transitional justice, and I believe in the questions themselves. But when I try to balance them against the importance of the ‘do no harm‘ approach that is at the core of my belief system about service, I find the balance to be tentative and fragile.

In that sense, my field experience here so far has been a balance of scales: There are moments when I feel I bear witness to everything grand about this universe, the ways in which humans are connected, and the places from which individuals and communities find strength in the face of atrocity and hope in the face of darkness. And there are many more moments when I feel tiny — not only humbled, but also crushed. In those moments, progress feels slow, impact feels abstract, and change feels remote. I recognize those to be the signs of discouragement, and I have vowed to myself to work hard to not succumb to jaded cynicism. But just as I slowly learn the lessons of reliance and the beauty of allowing oneself to need others and their help, I am also asking: How helpful are questions — the cómo‘s and por qué‘s of my interviews — in the face of human need?

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