Striver’s Guilt

May 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

photo_001I noted recently how far Mtuseni has come since we first met. I can’t believe next month he’ll be halfway through college. It’s been amazing to see him grow in maturity and confidence, and to see his horizons expand. And like any kid with a dream, he’s excited for what’s around the next corner… and the one after that. Since he started at school, I keep telling him to keep his eyes on the prize.

But the other day Mtuseni was tired and down. He holds his cards close to the vest and generally puts up a cheerful front, so when the gates open to the darker side I know he’s hurting. These talks always focus on the challenges and frustrations of trying to juggle school work with the limitations of rural poverty. But this time there was a new topic. He said…

“Sometimes you look back
and you are the only developed person
in the house, and that just saddens me.”

It’s the flip side of his journey. As Mtuseni moves along into a future filled with possibility, he glanced over his shoulder. He saw his illiterate mom. He saw his little brother and sister, going to the same limited public school he attended. He knows it’s only by a twist of fate that he met me — and is able to go to college and escape the cycle of poverty. And he desperately wants to escape. But the growth that is the essence of his journey is distancing him from the family. He’s said before that they don’t understand his life now. How can they? I saw both sides firsthand, and Mtuseni is definitely straddling two different worlds. And knowing his big heart and love for the family, he wants to carry them on his back into that new world.

Everyone is familiar with the concept of survivor’s guilt — the ironic sense of remorse at being the only person to come out of a terrible situation unscathed. But in this case, Mtuseni is actively saving himself from the tragedy of poverty that has gripped his family and his entire community. So a more appropriate term might be striver’s guilt. Whatever the name, it’s a speed bump in an otherwise magical ride and is making him uncomfortable. We talked it through, but I know from my own experience with family that it will resurface.

Again… the connection between the two of us is uncanny. For as he starts to feel guilt at leaving the family behind, I’ve begun to wonder about my own role with the family. How do I only limit my support to Mtuseni?… Especially having been blessed by Musa and Bongeka’s shy smiles and shining eyes, singing hymns to me. Yes, Mtuseni is going to college to help his family, and right now is setting a good example for his young siblings. But it’s doubtful he can lift them up on his own. My journey with Mtuseni is incredibly fulfilling and satisfying, but it can be exhausting at times, too. Could I do it again with the other kids? Should I? And what can I do for them right now, when my resources and energy are fully stretched with one South African son?

I think that’s maybe the most precious similarity between Mtuseni and me: We both want to change the world… and we feel guilty that maybe it’s not enough.

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