Owning our painful experiences or the ones of others might be the only control we have.

There is a bit of sadness inside me today. This sadness is not so much for myself, but rather comes from reminders of the pain that is felt by so many the world over, again and again in their life.

It began yesterday during a conversation I was having about addiction. The reality that so many people carry the pain of addiction – whether that means “stronger” addictions like drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, or “lesser” addictions like food, work, the computer, the television – with them for most of their years can leave one feeling deflated at best, hopeless at worst.

Continuing into this morning, I was a bit torn apart by an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, The World Capital of Killing. Nicholas Kristof drives home the point that the continued genocide in the Congo may have already surpassed the numbers who died in the Holocaust, and yet the world still sits by and allows the murdering to continue.

The part that triggered tears was Kristof’s recounting of the continuous gang rape of a 14-year-old girl by the Hutu militia, which included sticks that tore apart her insides and left her “dribbling wastes constantly.” At 19, she has been “fixed” internally by Dr. Mukwege at the Panzi Hospital through many operations on two separate occassions, only to be raped, and ripped open, once again upon returning to her village.

Painful Lessons

How can we make any sense of this type of pain? It’s hard to see that there could be any lessons to these types of tragedies. I’m beginning to wonder if “learning a lesson” is the point. Maybe the “answer” lays more in learning what to do with that pain.

Photographer Dave LaBelle gave a presentation at the Pictures with Purpose workshop about his documentation of homeless people in Skid Row, Los Angeles. In it, he discusses how putting a face to the homeless and drug addicts brought some very significant changes to the area:

Chapter 1: Dave LaBelle | Connecting the Eye and the Heart from Francis Gardler on Vimeo.

The point that LaBelle exemplifies is that “now we know them, now we are involved.” This is the outcome with both people and place when we travel, this is what feeds us when we sit down together over a pint at a pub, this is what moves us when we watch a short video or read a piece about the suffering of others.

What can we do with that pain? We can try to hide it, which many of us do (for a while at least, and often unsuccessfully). Or, we can seek to shine a light upon it, to bring it to the surface. As scary as this sounds, it gives us a chance to free it, connect with others who have similar painful experiences, and hopefully transform sorrow into creative energy that can help others.

Continued thanks to all of you who go out into the world and share your story, or bring back with you the stories of others.

Have you used a painful experience to help another person? Share your thoughts below.

Community Connection

As Dave LaBelle shows us, a great way to share people’s stories is through photography. Get your free download of 15 Publications That Pay For Travel Photography, and be on the look-out for Matador’s travel photography course, coming this year.