Disclosure: On a few occasions I have been known to partake in beverages with the author. Not on many, but on a few. Oh, and my wife is an amalgamated character in the book.
Chasing Chaos examines the lives that aid workers lead and the work which aid workers do in vivid clarity and with honesty, clarity, and warmth. Highly recommended book; and not only because I know Jess.
When someone says they work for a law firm, most people who are not lawyers have certain cultural benchmarks in which to orient themselves around some idea of what that lawyer's life may be like. Whether it is because the non-lawyer was an English major and read One L as they considered law school, because they watched L.A. Law, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, or Suits, or because they have watched Erin Brokovitch or any of Grisham's books/movies – no matter the case, most are able to comprehend to a certain degree what the lawyer's life is like. Sure cultural benchmarks are subject to Hollywood mandated arbitrary drama which often fails to portray the fuller reality of its subject matter. But at least these benchmarks provide an icon in which to begin discourse. Similarly, when someone says they are a doctor, people can refer to the cultural benchmarks of ER or Grey's Anatomy or Scrubs. Finance? Wall Street, and any of the recent movies which came out after the 2008 crash. Firefighters. Policeman. Nurses. Teachers. These are all easy to talk about when meeting people because icons from popular culture provide an entry point to begin communicating what one “does”.
Those of us who live the life which I live do not have such a luxury. The aid and development businesses are foreign to many folks not only because of the “exotic” locations in which aid and development take place, but because the work that aid and development workers do is not fully understood within mainstream Western culture. It is certainly well understood in mainstream Asian, African, and Latin American cultures as they have lived through, or are living through, the arc of how modern aid and development works. Chasing Chaos is a book which explains the life that I live – with all its contradictions, tensions, nuances, stresses, pleasures, and excitement – much better than I ever could.
When Jess asked me if I would read an early copy of the book, I told her I was happy to and that her publisher should send a copy to our temporary apartment in Nairobi which we are so rarely at, that the caretaker called Leigh the other day to ask if we were still living there; both of us recently have been “on mission” a lot. Exotic Apartments, Ngong Road (Across from Nairobi Baptist Church), Nairobi, Kenya is the address I facebook messaged to Jess. At the time I thought, if her publishers wondered whether she was going to go all A Million Little Pieces on them, perhaps sending early review copies to the above address may make them more comfortable as to her credence.
Jess does not have the most field cred of any one I've ever met. Yet she has certainly done some hard time. One of the most refreshing things about the book, and one of its most worthwhile aspects is that Jess is honest about that fact, as well as everything else. While the book is peppered with hilarious anecdotes – Jess being at the farther end of the funny people bell curve on the storytelling front – its is also salted with tears. Honest, genuine, heartfelt tears. This life and this work that aid and development workers embark upon so often oscillates wildly between stomach bursting laughter and shoulder seizing weeping – Chasing Chaos captures these oscillations, and the doldrums in between the ends of the spectrum, perfectly. It illustrates how it feels to be exhausted, filthy, drenched in sweat, and have to deal with yet another problem that you did not anticipate. It also illustrates the joy which very few have an opportunity to understand, the joy of how even small victories feel when achieved despite obscene obstacles.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is that Jess never loses sight of the humanity of this business. Fundamentally humanitarian aid and development are about helping people. It is certainly an imperfect industry. Of course for those of us in this industry it is easy to get more hung up on the fact that we cannot go to Starbucks on our way to work and spend more time focusing our mental energies on our personal deprivations than on the people we are supposedly helping. Between the outwardly selfless actions we are supposed to be performing and the (at times) inwardly selfish motivations which drive us to take those actions it becomes very easy for us to lose sight of the human beings around us – whether those are national colleagues not entitled to evacuation if it all goes south, or the beneficiaries who are so often not given a voice in the matter at all. What Jess is able to accomplish in her memoir is to examine both sides of the outwardly selfless and inwardly selfish equation without losing her focus on the people she has met along her own journey. Everyone in the book, no matter where they come from, their class or stature or background, is treated as an individual, unique human being. In the haze of travel and constantly changing environments, in the blur of the mountains of work we very often face, this is a difficult challenge even for the most altruistic of aid workers.
As Jess is tracing her own career development, during the latter portions of the book, the narrative turns to a more reflective examination of the aid business. Her examination of the contradictions and tensions underlying the work, I suspect, will resonate with many. These are the things which we talk about at expat parties and other gatherings of those of us who live “The Life” whether in New York, Geneva, London, the Hague, Nairobi, Monrovia, Colombo, Khartoum, Aceh, Kabul, Bratislava, or Mogadishu. Like other groups of professionals, when we gather we are bound to talk about work. She illustrates clearly many of the things that have been, and are, wrong with and many things that are right about the aid business in language which those who have not attended such an expat party and participated in such discussions can easily understand. The book does a fine job of using the human elements of its narrative to illustrate her larger perspective as to where aid is at this particular moment in time. Her points, while not unfamiliar to most in the business, are easily approachable to those who are not in the business.
Chasing Chaos is a book which provides a holistic view of our world, our jobs, and our lives. If you are currently living “The Life” you should read this book for the stories – which I am positive will resonate deeply with your own experiences and journey. If you are thinking about getting into “The Life” then you should certainly read this book as it provides the best glimpse I have read as to what this is like. If you have loved ones or friends in “The Life” you should very much read this book as it will explain in a way that perhaps your loved one or friend cannot what their life is like: what they think about, how they feel, and what they actually do. Personally, I have never given my mother or father any book in this genre, until now.
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