Thursday, November 29, 2007

Volunteering: The Big Reality Break

(This is a journal entry written in July while I was volunteering in Chile. I thought it was a pertinent response to something I have heard one too many volunteers relate to. I have edited it a bit to mix experiences both from Chile and Ecuador.)

Taking a break from the real world. “A year or two off from reality” seems to be the catch phrase many people have used to explain my decision to commit two years of my life after college to international volunteer work. And I’m here to tell you- what a break it’s been!

What’s my life like as a volunteer in a foreign country? First, live and communicate in a foreign language. Move away from everything you love and feel secure in, everything that validates you. Leave all that false security to come to a foreign land and have your day to day experience be radically changed into nothing more than a humbling attempt to get up after you have fallen again and again. But unlike other trying moments in your life before, there are no friends around that can help you out. No night out for happy hour or anything like that. There is a cold house that leaks when it rains, and is freezing in the coldest of weather and a sauna on the hottest of days. It is there, in that excuse of a shelter you will find out what you’re made of, you will find out who you are.

Then you have to look beyond yourself and open your eyes to a horribly depressing story called poverty that plays out day to day. I teach a group of kids that often times are the principle bread winners of their family. Do you have any idea what it feels like to look into the weary eyes of a 7 year old child whose hands are blackened after hours of shining shoes? It is neither glorified nor cute. It just is what it is: someone else’s cold, hard reality. And you, you’re a helpless witness to a tragedy you can only do so much to change.

You still want to talk about reality?

I didn’t take any break from reality when I graduated college. I’d say the 22 years of life I lived up until my time in South America was the true break from reality as the majority of the world knows it. No disrespect to anyone in continuing education or working the day to day in the United States. I do not discount the trials and tribulations that pass through your life.

So for God sakes, give me a break and, at the very least, recognize that what I have chosen to do with my life is the furthest thing from a vacation or play time. I am an eyewitness to the grace of God at her best, and the power of humanity at our worst. I see and live intimately in both extremes. And I pay the full price of my ticket, every damn day.

So until you have seen injustice at its worst and had the ugliest and weakest of yourself revealed in it, you have no right to merely “glance” at what I am doing- and without an ounce of experience in it, demean it as something that is only cutesy and idealistic.

I guess I just need to know this: if encountering and battling poverty manifested in one’s own personal identity and the world at large isn’t reality…then what in God’s name is your definition of reality?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Blast From the Past, A Fear For the Future

The decision to do service abroad is the result of the accumulation of several events over my life. But it was a trip to Southern Ecuador with the Alternative Spring Break program at LMU that I must credit with giving me that final push. I had just seen poverty at its ugliest the day before. I felt worthless and utterly hopeless in the face of it, and for the first time in my life, began to buy into that pessimistic view that nothing can be done to battle the poverty epidemic. And in walked Pat.

I never got her last name or fully understood exactly what she did. But what I will remember is the talk she gave to my group that day, and the way it made me feel. “Having just seen what you all have seen” she said, “you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” She concluded by telling us that, in the face of such devastation of innocent life, “we have no right to fail.” There was a certain confidence that emanated from her in the face of such dire conditions, and it was allergic. We don’t have many moments in our lives that we can point to and say “there, that was when I decided to make a life changing decision.” But this was one of those moments. There is a bracelet I received that day, a bracelet I have not once taken off in over 2.5 years in order to always remind myself why it is I needed to come back to Latin America.

Over the last year, I had tried many times to write a letter to thank her. I had always wanted to do service but was so afraid. She gave me the courage to take a leap of faith that to this day still surprises and amazes me. And when I decided to leave Chile and return to Ecuador I couldn’t help but think about that life changing moment. I couldn’t help but wonder about Pat.

The other day, at a Mass at The Working Boys Center, a good 12 hours from Duran, I saw Pat. I knew she didn’t remember me, but still, I felt I had to say something. I walked over and, avoiding any attempts at poise and tact, said “Hi. You don’t really know me. But you gave a talk to a college group one day in Duran and well, you’re the reason I’m here doing what I am doing.” I babbled a few more incoherent words, and then just said, “you probably never realized it, but your talk that day made a big difference in my life. I just want to thank you for how you inspired me and gave me the courage to be here.”

Seeing Pat made me realize just how happy I am with this decision to do post-grad service. It has made me genuine and permitted me to love and be loved like I never allowed. And so, seeing Pat also made me realize something else. Though it may be many, many months away, I’m so incredibly scared to return to the United States. I have changed so much since I left. And frankly, I don’t know if who I am here can survive the daily ritual of life in the States. The priority to do all things out of love and with love seems to get lost. My two weeks home taught me that as much as I wanted to hear everyone else’s story, not many people, save but a few really good friends, cared to hear mine. “How was it?” was the question of the day it seemed no one truly wanted an answer to. And you know, before my time down here, I was that otherwise well intentioned but not truly caring guy as well. I don’t want to become him again, and I’m so afraid when I go back to the United States I might lose the courage to stay true to what I have learned here.

And perhaps my next moral obligation as Pat might say is finding how to take who I am and what I do here and bring it back home. In a new twist on an old theme, seeing Pat 2.5 years later reminded me that, here or there, I have no right to fail.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My Biggest Mistake Yet

For the last few weeks I have been heading to school with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I wish it was an exaggeration, but I’m here to tell you that a devastating mistake I made some five weeks ago created unbelievable repercussions on my happiness for sometime now.

It all happened when I thought I heard one of my students call me a maricon. It was already building into a long day, and as I’ve come to learn, the quickest lapse of sound judgment can be the most dangerous.

I snapped. I ripped her apart, berating her about the lack of respect. I went on and on, demanding accountability for her actions. She denied any wrongdoing, refusing to admit she called me what I was so sure she called me. And you know, playing the moment over and over in my head again, a bit of doubt has began to creep in, questioning me to wonder if I really did hear her wrong.

Anyway, on I went, humiliating this poor girl in front of the rest of the class until I finally forced her to break down- sobbing and embarrassed. I stood there in front of the class, just having humiliated one of my poor students into tears. Mr. Tough guy, just like I felt I had to be- feeling like the biggest and most worthless jackass in the world.

Two days later I was in a bind. I couldn’t shake the guilt of my actions like the Patrick Furlong before South America might have been able to so easily have done. It became a moment in my young teaching career where the supposed mistake of the student paled in comparison to my mistake, that of the educator. And so, I made one of my most difficult but altogether important decisions: I humbled myself and apologized to this young girl. Throughout it all, she never once looked me in the eye or even acknowledged what I was saying to her.

Five weeks had crawled by and she still wouldn’t speak to me or even look at me. Racked with an incredible guilt that wasn’t disappearing anytime soon, I did everything I could to reverse the situation: all to no avail. A child was entrusted into my care, and I violated that trust. And she had every right to feel and act the way she did. She even got her little friends to ignore me as well. I was once like a saint to these children, and now I was nothing more than a jerk whose existence was acknowledged with a silent eye roll (and these kids give killer eye rolls). And so what once was my personal heaven, the downtown center in “La Marin”- quickly became my nightmare.

I submitted myself to my own trials of humiliation when day after day I would attempt conversation with her and day after day, she ignored me. And so imagine my surprise the other day when at last, she responded to me. It was nothing major, a short conversation about something or other at school, but the look in her eyes moved me profoundly. There are times, I am convinced, where God DIRECTLY communicates with you through another human being. It was as though the lesson of a lifetime was conveyed through her cautious eyes.

I went to a little hidden nook in the center after that little conversation and shed a few tears of relief and ultimately, of sincere thanks. In the end, 6th grade Diana taught me a think or two about forgiveness. And through her forgiveness, I’d like to think I learned more in that one shameful downfall then I might throughout the rest of the year about what kind of teacher, what kind of person I not only should be, but desire to be as well.

I have learned a lot about vulnerability over the last 15 months and would like to propose it is perhaps the most misunderstood adjective in our language. Perhaps it conjures images of susceptibility or weakness. But to me, vulnerability is having the courage to declare we are broken, and as a result, incredibly blessed. It’s looking at the world with the walls of our defense down. It’s allowing the human condition which seeks to permeate through our being to do just that. Ours is a life of co-dependency. To be vulnerable therefore is nothing more than to love without limits.

It’s taken a bunch of street kids and some lonely and challenging moments to teacher me the greatest lesson of my short life. Call it cheesy or call it cliché, but the only thing worth a damn in this life is finding a way to open ourselves freely to love in a way in which we live fully in the consequences: the sadness and the pain, the joy and euphoria. We all make grand mistakes, but perhaps the biggest of all would be to allow our pride to blind us in such a way that we see vulnerability as a weakness rather than our most admirable strength.

(Oh, and an update since I wrote this journal entry. Things with Diana are going great. She is talking to me again, joking and laughing, and even gave me a hug as I left work the other day.)