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The Red Cross aid workers often faced “impossible situations” in their missions abroad. Such situations—affectively and ethically impossible somehow, impasses from which there is no obvious good way forward—also arise in anthropological research. Like anthropologists, aid workers are sometimes left feeling ambivalent, inadequate, and even impure about the work that they have done, despite their best efforts to fulfill the standards of their profession and their personal ethical commitments. These situations are a reminder that the popularized humanitarian position of moral high ground and professional mastery can actually be a partial fiction. While even difficult missions may be personally very rewarding, they are often also experienced as psychically troubling. People may chase “a desire to be challenged but not undone” (Povinelli 2002). In a doctor’s words: “The very accumulation of experience can cause a breakdown. So, in a way, the more professional you become, the more vulnerable you become.”

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