#3. Haidyn Bulen – Arizona State University (2nd Prize)
Community, Compassion, and Communication: Lessons from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
“No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone” (Conrad 19).
While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gruesomely details the atrocities of British imperialism and conquering the African Congo, the beauty of the novella lies within its multiple interpretations; its ambiguity. Conrad, through the narration of Marlow, portrays the futility of understanding the decisions and essence of another human—he blends paradoxical imagery to blur the boundary of good and evil, suggesting humans and the world around us are a mere composition of the meaning we impose. While ostensibly crude and dark, the novella as a whole has impacted the way I perceive the world around me and has shaped the person I am today in a very positive way.
I grew up reading many of the popular fantasy series such as Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Game of Thrones, and many Stephen King novels. Such books were powerful in their ability to allow me to transcend time and space and become a character in a new world; an escape from reality in essence. While these books undeniably impacted my life during a formative time, none of them left that deep-rooted, visceral state I felt after reading Heart of Darkness for the first time. Heart of Darkness is neither an escape from reality nor a non-fiction retelling of true atrocities; it is a creative and chaotic underpinning of the complexities of human emotion and moral ambiguity. It is a novel that evokes sadness and demands readers to search for truth and compassion within their own lives.
The first semester of my freshman year of college I took a course titled “The Human Event.” A course that altered the way I think about human history and individuals’ role within a global society. Throughout this course, we read texts from the very beginning of human literature such as Enûma Eliš to 20th century poetry including T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and everything in between. The class introduced me to Heart of Darkness and subsequently altered my academic path at my University and changed the way I perceive the world.
After reading Heart of Darkness and grappling with Conrad’s frankly depressing and ambiguous novel, I changed my declared major from biology to psychology—a subject I was quite unfamiliar with.
The transition from a core science to a social science was daunting. I was comfortable thinking in terms of exact answers, equations, and biological concepts, but psychology was a whole new world that focuses on the human mind, brain, and behavior. Heart of Darkness inspired in me a desire for understanding humans. While Conrad, through his character Marlow, ostensibly implied that it is impossible to understand the composition, ideals, and actions of other humans when he reflected, “We live, as we dream—alone,” I believe that Conrad was addressing a larger issue: a break-down in the language and communication of humans (Conrad 19).
On a fundamental level, when humans cannot understand the language of another, the differences between the two become more salient than the similarities, and a subsequent competitive superiority complex arises. Throughout Conrad’s novel, the deeper Marlow travels into the African Congo, the more absurd the environment becomes, the more egregious the mistakes in communication become, and the more hideous the atrocities become.
Further, the breakdown in communication in Heart of Darkness occurs on multiple levels. The European conquerors literally do not understand the language of the African “savages,” but on a more subtle level, the further into the Congo the Europeans go, the more isolated they become from the outside world, and their isolation serves as a both a physical and figurative communication barrier through which their atrocities become justified.
To connect the relevance of Conrad’s novella and my decision to major in Psychology, I felt compelled to take the lessons and interpretations of human history within Heart of Darkness and utilize them to further study the complexities of human thought and behavior.
Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924), author of Heart of Darkness
Conrad showed me that books on a fundamental level reflect history and inspire thought; Conrad saw a world full of darkness where humans committed acts of cruelty against other humans and subsequently wrote a story to inspire change in generations to come. While the act of spinning truth and imputing lessons for future generations is nothing novel, Heart of Darkness was the first book that made me feel responsible as a person who can impact change and avoid repetition of history. In other words, Heart of Darkness made me feel something. So I took that something, changed my major, and began to involve myself in projects that focus on solving the root cause of systemic human issues.
Heart of Darkness instilled in me a compassion for stigmatized and misunderstood individuals, ultimately leading me to become involved in a program called Student Health Outreach for Wellness, or S.H.O.W., for short. S.H.O.W. is a student-run program at my University that partners with a healthcare clinic in downtown Phoenix, Arizona to give free medical care to homeless individuals.
As a freshman in college, I was able to work in an interdisciplinary setting with doctors, medical school students, nursing students, psychiatrists, social workers, and other undergraduates to not only provide free healthcare, but also help fight the stigma of homelessness, and provide homeless individuals with resources to help them build their lives back up.
I started out in the clinic as a Navigator where my job was to aid the patients in filling out the clinic paperwork, present their case to a team of doctors, and work side by side with the doctors to treat the patient. Further, I got to witness the role of social workers in connecting the homeless individuals to resources that could get them up off of their feet.
After serving as a Navigator for a semester, I got more involved on the administrative side of the clinic and joined the Clinical Operations Committee, where I helped build-up our facility’s Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) subcommittee. For about eight months now, I have been working with a Nurse Practitioner to write the policies and procedures and the education for certifiable clinic tests such as rapid HIV, Strep, Urinalysis, Glucometer, and Influenza. I then made quizzes for clinic personnel to take and pass in order to become certified in performing these tests in clinic to expand our clinic’s treatment abilities for those who are homeless.
More recently, I have additionally become trained in the administrative position of Medication’s Manager, for which my job is to organize, keep stock, manage, and prescribe all in-house medications and prescriptions. Through this position I have the ability to work hand-in-hand with the doctors to treat the patients and keep a record of which medications are in highest demand, which is vital to the success of our clinic because we run off of donated medications. Thus, I constantly update the meds that we need and use this information to go to our donors and ask for those specific supplies.
While my job in clinic may seem like a far stretch from the ostensibly irrelevant themes and takeaways in Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s novel incited in me a compassion for humans and a larger purpose of changing our perceptions of one another. On a basic level, this is exactly what I do for the S.H.O.W. program; I dedicate hours of my week, every week, to showing compassion and respect to a population that is highly stigmatized.
Further, Conrad’s novel additionally changed the way I perceive those who are culturally dissimilar from me. While Conrad demonstrated that a breakdown in communication and a language barrier can serve as a source of magnifying differences and justifying cruelty, the opposite is also true: building communication and knocking down language barriers can serve as a means to equalize people and bring us closer to one another.
Thus, after reading Heart of Darkness, changing my major to psychology, and becoming involved with the S.H.O.W. program, I decided to minor in Spanish and work on expanding my knowledge of the highly prevalent Latino culture within Arizona. I have now taken three semesters of college Spanish and this past semester was able to additionally work as a translator within the S.H.O.W. clinic for patients who could only speak Spanish. This past semester I learned the true value of communication and language and for the first time I understood the real danger of ethnocentrism. I was able to see individuals through the lens of their own culture, through a lens of normalcy instead of dissimilarity and superiority.
Further, because I have realized the importance of understanding individual culture and community in a highly globalized society, I recently applied to study abroad in the fall of 2018 in Valencia, Spain, where I will hopefully live with a Spanish family for six months. My goal is to continue learning about and understanding individuals from diverse backgrounds, in different cultures, in different parts of the world, and then use that knowledge to continue to break down cultural barriers.
As a whole, this was the true impact of Heart of Darkness—a connection to a greater life purpose in which I focus on understanding humans, on helping people, on practicing compassion, and on avoiding the past mistakes of human history.