Saturday, January 02, 2010

Dueling Realities

Reality is complex to define. While in South America, I was often subjected to conversations with friends back home who knew nothing of my reality and thus dismissed my volunteering as a cheeky avoidance of reality- an extended spring break of sorts if you will. What I have seen in my time back in the United States is at once simple and complex: the world is limitless with definitions of reality, each one different, real, and wholly unique from the other, and each equally important to understand.

And so I live the reality of a man who has not just seen developing world poverty but lived amongst it and attempted in a rather amateur way to repair it or at least heal some of the wounds that develop as a result of it. And now I am a mid 20 something, surrounded by a haunting reality of a world I can’t and don’t want to forget. And yet I am increasingly entrenched in a world where like it or not your bank statement and your 401K mean something- not so much in terms of competition or prestige but in the simple matter of being able to provide for yourself. Suddenly, the question “what do you want to do with your life?” weighs heavy upon my shoulders.

Living in debt sucks. I know this first hand because it is perhaps the greatest characteristic of my time back in the United States. Working for little pay, I have found myself with a monthly credit card statement that can’t always be paid off on time. And my digs have ranged from a former convent in South LA where my room was the size of a closet to an apartment in a freshman dorm at my alma mater. In that capacity I try, sometimes with limited success, to expose freshman to the challenge and opportunity that is discovering the poverty that lurks in our midst and what we all can and should be doing to respond to it. Life giving as this role is for me, I am faced with the realization that one can only be a coupon whore and live gratis in church attics and dorms for so long.

And all this has me thinking, or more accurately said, worrying, about what my future contains. This I know, I am happiest when directing my energy towards making the world a better place. To take it a step further, I imagine I would be in my element working for a nonprofit focused on combating crisis of health and sanitation in the developing world. But at what cost? I attended a conference of nonprofit leaders in LA last year where the keynote speaker lamented about one of the greatest problems in the nonprofit sector: how are we to eliminate poverty in this world if we entrap our employees within it?

And so dear reader, now 18 months back home, I find myself adjusting to the world that I imagine many if not all returned volunteers face: how does one live with the urgency to expend every ounce of your talent towards fighting against a reality you were exposed to that is poverty, that you know is unjust and in need of repair. And how do you do that while juxtaposing it with a sincere and indeed acceptable desire to make enough money so that an unplanned expense such as a root canal doesn’t bring the prospect of financial misery for many more months to come? I wish I had an answer, but more often then not I find myself overly obsessed with a most frightening question: what if you are fairly certain of the career path that would bring you the greatest satisfaction and horribly uncertain if it can provide for a modest but comfortable lifestyle?


Pallotti Center said...

Hi Patrick,
My name is Molly from the St. Vincent Pallotti Center ( We support full time volunteers before, during and after their times of service. I truly appreciate your post on how difficult the return can be. My time of service was two years in El Salvador. It forever changes each of us. If there's anything the Pallotti Center can do (job bank, What's Next? Notebook...) do let us know.
peace to your and your continued work to bring a better world.


Who is this Nate "JoaquĆ­n"? said...

brother man this is good stuff. i completely know what you mean and it's good hearing other former vols in a similar position. keep fighting the good fight.