Bearing witness to distress and taking action against inequity for a better tomorrow
By SANDEEP RAI
We are in the middle of a wellbeing movement. The global wellness industry was valued at US$4.5 trillion in 2018 (Global Wellness Institute) and is one of the decade’s fastest growing industries. Underlying this unprecedented growth is the discovery that we, as individuals, are more than human resources; we are whole beings who need care.
We are simultaneously entering an era where meaning and purpose are paramount. According to one prominent survey, 94% of millennials want to utilize their skills to benefit a cause. 63% believe that the primary purpose of a company should be to improve society, rather than to generate profits (Deloitte). Young people are searching for ways to make the world a better place. Underlying it all is the recognition that we live in an interconnected world; that my happiness and liberation depends on my neighbor being happy and free, too.
And yet, we are continuing to witness levels of suffering and poverty that are unparalleled. We’re in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 1.7 million people (a number that will be outdated by the time this article is published). It’s a global crisis, accompanied by school closures, employment losses, and painful economic cuts that will likely push 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021 (World Bank). It’s come on the heels of the MeToo movement, a plethora of civil rights uprisings, and increasingly dire predictions of climate change.
We want to take care of ourselves. We want meaning. And yet we feel helpless. How do we reconcile three seemingly disparate and contradictory realities? It’s a question that I’ve struggled to answer.
I work with an organization that employs 1250 of the most passionate, committed, and inspiring young people I’ve ever met. They are people whose primary purpose is to build a better tomorrow. And yet, over the last twelve months, we have seen inequity rise. We have watched families going hungry. Children getting married. Teenagers taking their own lives. Adults dying from preventable illnesses. And school closures forcing future generations into poverty.
The answer, I believe, is neither intuitive nor simple: we have to lean into suffering. We have to choose to be proximate. We have to repeatedly prioritize plight and injustice over individual comfort. We must bear witness to the suffering of our less-privileged neighbors.
Bearing witness goes beyond social media and one-page articles (including this one). Choosing proximity demands that we choose to act; that we choose to be perpetually uncomfortable.
Tarun Cherukuri was 24-years-old when he walked away from a well-paying job at Hindustan Lever. He wanted to build a better India, but he felt helpless when faced with the scope of the situation: hundreds of millions of Indians living in poverty. Tarun decided to start by teaching.
Today, he runs an organization, Indus Action, that’s ensuring hundreds of thousands of Indian children can access high-quality schools. As organizations across the world shut their doors during COVID-19, Tarun made a courageous decision: if low-income households and government officials couldn’t evade the pandemic, neither could he.
They would invest in the PPE, medical insurance, and testing needed to stay safe. They would plan an abundance of precautions. But they wouldn’t abandon communities.
This year, we have watched individuals and organizations choose to be courageous. They’re the doctors and nurses who choose to show up. They’re the teachers who are leveraging technology and community immersions to keep kids learning. The relief workers. The government officials. The firefighters.
These are all leaders who are choosing to be witnesses, even when they feel scared and helpless.
My hope, as we all enter 2021, is that we choose to be proximate to suffering. It’s a decision that not only demands courage and sacrifice, but also one that I admittedly struggled with–for months–to make and personally deliver. However, it is a decision that has the power to be transformative. And, in the end, it may be our only path to a world filled with more care, more meaning, and less suffering.
About the Author
Sandeep helped start Teach For India in 2008 after teaching secondary science in Washington, D.C., as a Teach For America Corps Member and subsequently working as a fundraising consultant with Ashoka. He is now Chief of City Operations at Teach for India. Sandeep has a Master’s Degree in International Affairs and Economic Policy from Columbia University, New York; he also holds a Masters in Secondary Teaching and Education from American University.