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Curves in the Road

Fara Choi Ashimoto
Headington Institute, 2012.


More than most careers, humanitarian work puts people in challenging terrain. It forces people into close quarters with disasters, violence and other traumatic events, extreme poverty and deprivation, other people’s suffering, and the moral dilemmas that are inherent in situations where tough choices must be made. In turn, these experiences can force us to examine our own assumptions and beliefs, and highlight spiritual vulnerabilities and dilemmas such as:

  • Death and suffering are inevitable – happiness is not always possible;
  • Life is not always comprehensible, predictable, or fair – bad things do happen to good people; and
  • We are not always good, and we can’t always view ourselves in a positive light – right alongside acts of heroism and dignity there can be desperation, selfishness, and cruelty.

When our assumptions and beliefs don’t match the terrain we see, it can be very challenging and troubling. It forces us to compare those beliefs to our experiences, and try to reconcile them. Many humanitarian workers, even the nonreligious, experience at least one “crisis of faith” during their careers, because their experiences can raise spiritual issues and questions related to:

  • Personal identity and purpose in life;
  • The existence and identity of a transcendent force or power; and
  • The existence and nature of broader meaning and purpose in relation to disasters and traumatic events.

This process can have both benefits and costs. Many humanitarian workers I’ve met over the years speak thoughtfully and positively of how the things they’ve seen and experienced during their careers has matured and stretched them, broadened and enhanced their perspective on life, and made them profoundly grateful for their many blessings. On the other hand, being stretched implies being pushed past your existing comfort limits. Many humanitarian workers – often the same ones who can identify the positives in their experiences – also speak of times when they have wrestled with spiritual angst, felt completely overwhelmed, hopeless, and despairing, or felt they had lost their sense of meaning, purpose, and faith.


  • Have you experienced a “crisis of faith” during your career?
  • If so, what people or events were related to this?
  • Which assumptions and beliefs were challenged or changed?
  • How did you react and change?

Adapted by Fara Choi Ashimoto from our Peace by Piece series on spirituality written by Lisa McKay.

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