Need, Imagination, and
the Care of the Self
The interview in the coffee shop had long since become something else; we had been there
for hours. She worked hard to get across how trapped she felt in her hospital work, and
just in her ordinary, workaday life as a doctor and a woman in Finland. Her desire for
the world “out there” and her love of beauty came across as a deep quaking neediness.
“Maybe I really was born in the wrong country.” She remembered a late friend who, she
explained, just wasn’t suited to life in his “own” country. He “blossomed like a rose” in the
[Middle East]. Before he was killed, they had talked about how, for each of them, “out
there in the world” (tuolla maailmalla) was where they would both thrive. Missions
for the Red Cross took her out there.
In a Helsinki yarn shop on a quiet afternoon, an old woman had picked out her se-
lection of yarns and stood at the checkout counter. She talked familiarly with the shop
owner about the “Mother Teresa blankets” she was knitting to send to the needy via
the Vaaka ry organization, or perhaps the Red Cross; she had not decided yet. She talked
about other things, too, and a conversation ensued. Finally she gathered her bag of yarn,
her beige purse, and her walking stick. Then I was the only customer in the shop. The
owner told me that the “elder” (vanhus) who had just left had knitted scores of blankets
for charity (hyväntekeväisyys). She also remarked that the elder did not seem to have
much else in her life.1
In recent years, a formidable critical literature has emerged on humanitari-
anism as a key figure in global politics. Likewise, human rights and humani-
tarian nongovernmental organizations (ngos) have come to be recognized
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