When George Ezra released his new single “Don’t Matter Now” this June, I wasn’t really paying much attention. My love for the the British singer/songwriter notwithstanding (although tempered somewhat by having a neighbor who played his smash hit “Budapest” as an alarm every. single. morning.), it was graduation season. Most of my thoughts were focused on double-triple checking that I had completed the requirements for my bachelor’s degree, finishing my honors thesis, and managing my entire family descending on campus for the commencement festivities.
And then it was over. I had graduated. (Yay!) And faced with my summer commute on the scenic 280 highway, Ezra’s “Don’t Matter Now” found its way onto my Spotify playlist. And then was put on repeat. Repeatedly.
The song (beginning “sometimes you need to be alone//shut the door, unplug the phone”) is about how we all need to take a break, calm down, and maybe go to the beach every once in awhile. But as Ezra’s voice crooned “it don’t matter now” at me over and over again, I found myself almost manically listing things that, I insisted, mattered.
Really, George? Really? It don’t matter now? How about having your passport? You can’t travel internationally without your passport. Your passport matters. You know what else matters? Having money to travel. How will you have money without a job? A job matters. And what do you need for a good job? A good economy. The economy matters. You know what effects the economy? The US presidential election. And how about international relations? Do they matter? Russia? North Korea? The Syrian Civil War? The refugee crisis? How about Brexit, George? BREXIT MATTERS!
As fun as driving with me became, my imaginary (and increasingly loud) conversations with singer/songwriter George Ezra made me pause. After four years of constantly trying to do things that “mattered”, I couldn’t even enjoy a relaxing anthem — literally telling me to relax! — for the 2 minutes and 57 seconds it took George Ezra to drive a classic car down a road in Spain and jump on a trampoline for a bit.
I wanted to write something for my friends and classmates who are studying human rights, although I hope it also has resonance for others as well. But I think students of human rights (and similar fields) face particular challenges when it comes to mental health and self-care — so I wanted to share some of my reflections at the end of four years studying human rights.
As an undergraduate, I’ve been incredibly lucky in the work I’ve gotten to do. My research has focused on post-conflict transitions — or how communities have emerged from conflict after mass atrocities, like war or genocide. It’s taken me all around the world, from the Balkans to South East Asia, Istanbul to The Hague. I’ve also gotten to be part of amazing work on campus, helping with research on the history of genocide to human trafficking. I’m daily grateful for the opportunities my education has afforded me.
But I’m also exhausted. And I’m worried about my friends who — youthful, idealistic, and driven by the same desire to help others — are plunging head-first into some of the worst problems in the world.
More broadly among the human rights community, there is an increasing understanding about the negative mental health consequences that can result from repeatedly being exposed to stories of violence and trauma. Often called “secondary or vicarious trauma” or “empathy fatigue,” individuals can develop symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — the difference is, you don’t have to experience trauma yourself. Repeatedly hearing about the suffering of others can lead to feeling detached or isolated, avoiding activities or people, or an inability to stop thinking about the events.
But I think the most challenging thing about vicarious trauma is that it makes you feel like you don’t deserve to feel sad or angry or depressed. You couldn’t possibly have experienced anything on the level of the stories you’ve heard, so you don’t deserve to take a break. You don’t deserve feelings of happiness when others are so much worse off than you, you shouldn’t enjoy yourself when there is so much work to be done — and you certainly can’t listen to a song telling you “sometimes you need to be alone” because “it don’t matter now.”
Everything matters, everything has to matter, constantly. Otherwise, how could you live with yourself?
The summer of my freshman year, I did research on the Balkans Wars of the 1990s. I spent all day on the idyllic Stanford campus, lounging in the library, sitting in the gardens, and reading descriptions of atrocities that happened thousands of miles away to people I had never met.
When we think about people who suffer from secondary trauma, we often think about those who are on the front lines — working in refugee camps or in war zones. But I’ve seen, and experienced, that being exposed to violence in the classroom can still impact us, whether we’re watching a documentary video or reading a CIA report.
That summer, I remember jumping several times because the man who just walked into the coffee shop looked suspiciously like one of the Balkans war-time leaders, Radovan Karadzic.
It’s OK — I wasn’t really hallucinating war criminals. Upon closer examination it was clear that these fellows, however unfortunate their haircuts, were not former presidents of the Bosnian Serb Republic. And besides, Radovan Karadzic was on trial at The Hague — what would he be doing drinking sub-par coffee at the CoHo? But I think it was one of the first indicators that I wasn’t taking time to process my emotions, and that my human rights research was affecting me emotionally more than, say, my Calculus P-Set.
Part of the problem is, of course, that there is often very little space in academic or professional settings to talk about your “feelings.” It would have been a little odd (at least, to my mind) for me to turn to my P.I. and say, “Thanks for your comments on my writing. Um, do you ever think you see war criminals in the cafe?”
But as an awareness of the impacts of secondary trauma emerge, I think more and more people are taking the emotional impact of their work seriously. After watching a particularly harrowing video in class, for instance, students aren’t always expected to jump right into an academic analysis of what they’d seen (with only a quick, wide-eyed glance at a friend to communicate “oh my god.”). A moment to process, to take a break and get a coffee, to discuss experiences with the person next to them, helps.
When you study a place in books for so long, it can come as a shock when you arrive and find the place has been real all along. After spending over a year studying Bosnia and Herzegovina, the first time I walked off the plane into Sarajevo felt like entering a fairytale — but a fairytale where I had only read the scary parts. I saw bullet holes in the sides of buildings, and grenade shells in the streets, and kept remembering facts about the siege of the city. Being in a new place all alone can be feel very isolating — especially when you’re experiencing intense situations without anyone to talk to about it.
But of course a fairytale is more than its scary parts. And a society is more than the worst and tragic moments of its history. I think students can feel an obligation to constantly investigate only the human rights abuses or only suffering. But, as I discovered in Bosnia, most people don’t want you to only visit their sites of suffering. In Bosnia, locals told me to see beautiful waters and works of art and architecture and museums and pubs — things that made their country amazing and unique and happy. It is important to experience these things too.
I also think that students often feel obligated to have to have a transformational experience every five minutes. I remember scrolling through Facebook while I was in Sarajevo feeling like everyone was having a more meaningful summer than me — that I was letting down people because I wasn’t learning or seeing or doing enough. But — and this is the real truth — for every Instagram post you see of someone doing something cool abroad, there is an equivalent four hours of them sitting in their AirBnB watching Netflix and eating cornflakes alone. (Yes: the Internet lied to you.) You have not failed in your mission if you didn’t make friends with every local, learn the language immediately, and bring peace to the Middle East on your trip. You learn so much by simply being abroad, even if you are sad and afraid and alone sometimes.
For me, most of the emotional processing happened once I’d returned home — and reintegration can be really hard. After spending a summer in the Balkans (where you can still see grenade shells in the streets, everyone sits and drinks coffee for hours, and unemployment hovers at 47%) walking back onto the sunny Stanford campus felt like an absurd dream. I remember looking around the beautiful fountains and the energetic students and thinking, “Why are you happy? Why are you smiling? Why do you think you have a bright, economic future ahead of you? WHY ARE YOU WEARING CHUBBY SHORTS?!” (I’m still wondering about that last one.)
It can also feel very isolating when all of your friends have had different summer experiences — how do you bring up your feeling about seeing mass graves at the Choeung Ek killing fields with someone who’s been coding in Seattle all summer? How do you bring up feeling guilty about having a shower with someone who was at home in Miami? Even if they want to support you, they often don’t know how to respond. So it’s easy to feel like no one understands you, that you are all alone.
My senior year, a lecturer in my class was talking about the impact of secondary trauma in the human trafficking field. She said one of her colleagues once told her, “I can’t sleep until every slave has been freed.” She replied, “OK. Then you will die.”
It was around the time I started yelling at George Ezra was when I realized I need to take a break too.
I hadn’t really taken a break during college. Sure, I took “breaks” — but doing work in a different geographical location in not a break (please note this, friends). I have, on multiple occasions, taken books about Nazi Germany with me to the beach in Hawaii. This is not the vacation George Ezra was singing about.
So I decided for the next two months, I was not going to read anything about violence.
And it’s been wonderful. I’ve really developed my Instagram presence, started working on a young adult fantasy novel, and doodled enough to prompt my artist friend to comment “Wow, you’re really not as horrible at drawing as you were before!” I’ve also started doing stand-up, which has been a really eye-opening experience. Stand up is the first time in a long time where I am doing a presentation somewhat devoid of content, or things that “matter” — it’s not the nerve-wracking, high-stress performance of discussing important research with a bunch of academics. It’s silly and fun and just for a laugh. And if I do it badly, well — it don’t matter now. (I also did a stand up on my plans to marry George Ezra because, you know, full circle.)
But it’s also reminded me that part of the reason I want to do human rights work is not just to alleviate suffering — but to spread joy. And there is joy in so many things, from bringing someone a surprise snack, to mentoring younger students, or making someone laugh at my stand-up routine. These are some of the thousand little ways I want to impact the world. And I want to be doing human rights work for a long time — much longer than George Ezra’s music video — so taking a break is important. As Eleanor Browwn says, self-care is not selfish. You cannot give from an empty vessel.
George Ezra says he wrote the song “Don’t Matter Now” as an “anthem for over-thinkers and second guessers.” (Bless you, deep-voiced angel of the anxious.) And the song was indeed a lovely and much needed reminder that I do, in fact, sometimes need to be alone, shut the door, unplug the phone.
In September, I’m leaving for graduate school and my brief respite will be at an end. But for the rest of the summer at least, you can catch me rocking out in my car, singing (quite poorly) “Don’t Matter Now” and the rest of Ezra’s album.
It turned out that “Don’t Matter Now” mattered quite a bit after all.