Over a decade of working in emergency relief in nine countries left me discouraged, hopeless and cynical. I had seen the effects of war, managed crises and experienced abuses of power. I struggled to see the impact of my work, to the point of noticing the detrimental and potential harms of aid. Situations were bleak, and all I could see and feel was sorrow. I was on the verge of burnout.
Maybe this sounds like you, a once idealistic humanitarian worker turned cynical. Or maybe you’re asking (reading…) for a friend.
The amazing thing about cynicism is that it is avoidable, reversible. I’m not talking about calmly wishing cynicism away, or insisting that it is possible for us to wake up one day and push cynicism completely from our consciousness. As you have probably noticed yourself, both of these methods are hopelessly flawed.
Rather, we have the power to intentionally ward away cynicism by choosing rightly on one simple decision: What lens will I wear today?
I began my doctoral research hoping to push cynicism out of my consciousness, trying to understand one of the most distressing and widespread problems of our day: gender-based violence. At one point in my research, however, I realized that I was looking through the wrong lens—the problem lens—and therefore only coming up with problems.
As the saying goes, “If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
What I soon came to see and quickly experience was the transformational potential away from my own cynicism. When I shifted my gaze away from the problem and towards what was already working well, my cynicism began to dissipate. I was on the brink of something wonderfully unexpected on a personal level, and this intentional focus towards “what works” led to constructive outcomes in my research, as well.
What contributed to this transformation? Early on in my research, I was introduced to the theory of change called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI builds on what works. With an appreciative lens, we ask questions that frame our view to see the best in a complex situation. Instead of looking for need or problems, we seek strengths and assets.
We then fan these working elements into flame.
The premise behind AI is this: what is given attention will grow. Just as a flower follows the sun throughout the day from East to West, and therefore grows strong and tall, so will those positive elements in a field of proverbial weeds grow in the direction of the light it’s shown.
I was amazed to see my own cynicism and hopelessness fade as I changed my perspective. Instead of drowning in horror, I made a choice to look through the constructive lens of appreciation and strengths. Soon I noticed my own wilting flower—so accustomed to gazing at the downward spiral of problems—begin to stand a bit taller, as it followed the light of possibility.
AI is not only a methodology that I apply in research or my global health consulting efforts; it has become a way of life. Choosing the lens of appreciating what is good in the world has been the single most influencer in pulling me out of cynicism. Through AI, I have learned that change grows in the direction of our focus, influencing my own ability to thrive as I look upward and outward.
Will you choose to wear an appreciative lens today?
Whitney Fry, DrPH, MPH has over a decade of professional involvement in global health initiatives, with a particular focus on social norms and gender-based violence prevention. Applying strengths-based methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry to facilitate positive change, Whitney has steered vision to improve the public’s health in Uganda, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Sudan, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and the United States. Whitney has a BA in biology from Taylor University, an MPH in International Health and Complex Emergencies from Tulane University, and a DrPH from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Health Policy and Management. With a sound track record of local and global engagement with numerous NGOs, consulting firms, and universities, Whitney is now a global health consultant based in Nairobi, specializing in operations research in complex environments.
*If you’d like to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry, stay tuned for future blog entries and workshops hosted by Thrive Worldwide, or feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.