Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Seven Ways to Live Life on Ever-Changing Paths

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaption, though experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste.
~ Wendell Berry – The Art of Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry

I was once giving a guest lecture to a group of graduate students who had some interest in international disaster work. I tried to speak from the heart and balance the good with the bad; the exciting with the mundane; the frustration with the successes. I also tired to truly capture how life can be lived off the beaten path. What I have witnessed and observed over the last six years of doing international humanitarian work, predominately in war torn countries or in the developing world, has been both tremendous wealth and extreme poverty, both literally as well as figuratively, and I am still discovering which is which.


With these students I wanted to get away from the “sexiness” of international work, and get downs to the real essence of it. Because the truth of the matter is, work can be “sexy” in the place you and your ancestors came from, in urban metropolitan cities, in small unknown villages and in far off foreign lands. As I moved through my lecture one student stopped me with a puzzled look on her face and simply asked: “How do you know if you will be a good traveler?” By that she meant, what type of qualities does a person need to be able to pack up and work in far off lands where you may not know the language or the nuances of the cultures, without feeling completely overwhelmed or fearfully confused most of the time.

I found the to be an intriguing question, because as a psychologist who shows up in places where people sometimes have had no one to talk to aside from co-workers for a very long time, I sometimes hear the deeper, darker side of stories international workers carry. Sometimes these stories are full of adventure and job satisfaction, but other times they are full of angst, regret, torment and longing. I am left wondering if all the good they are doing for the world has actually been harmful to them in some fundamental way.

With regards to the question, I fear I didn’t answer it as fully and as completely as I would have liked that day in class, so in the service of going deeper, I am pleased to present -“The Top Seven Ways to Live Life on Ever-Changing Paths:”

1) You must have the ability to cope with an array of unexpected feelings and treatments from others: from kindness to cruelty; weariness to exuberance, devotion to betrayal; carelessness to care; doggedness to awkwardness to grace. It is likely all will occur – some by accident, some by intent: all will affect you, deeply, intensely, and powerfully.

2) It is an enormous bonus if you have a healthy appetite and a strong stomach. Many cultures reach out to foreigners with their food. This food may be familiar, exotic, threatening, exciting or sickening. A willingness to taste all and explore the world’s cuisines will win you big points in the areas of cultural compatibility and emersion. For those of you who have the interest but hesitate due to weak stomachs or finicky tastes – I encourage you to travel, but I advise against nomadic living being your bread and butter. You may think you have avoided situations by pushing your food around your plate or graciously informing your host you have already eaten, but they know, and often times, people take offense. I can’t count how many times someone has disclosed to me how negatively affected they have been by a foreigner who arrived and evidenced a severe lack of interest or willingness to try the local cuisine. Each and every time I have been told this has been after I have finished off a huge plate of something I may have never have imagined eating before and 99.9% of the time I have truly, honestly, candidly, enjoyed it.

3) Accept the fact you never really escape the place you are coming from and acknowledge that deep down, even if tremendous pain or disappointment is tied to that place, part of you has never really left. There is no such thing as a geographical cure. May it be Janesville or Stockholm or Lagos or Phnom Phen: wherever you are from, it is in some way shape or form, a part of you, and in many ways, it will forever remain your fate. Yes people can relocate and yes people can call a new place home and mean it deep down in their bones, but they are still from a place and that place is mapped on their DNA.

4) Understand that it takes time to truly understand a place. No matter how good you get at traveling or how many places you have visited, if you arrive to a new place you are, in fact, in a living breathing place that has generation upon generation of personal histories and traditions. Even if you are an expert at international politics, UN policies or specific types of implementation projects, you are in fact a stranger in a strange land and it is important to take some time to recognize that. Until you are settled, you have not yet in any meaningful way arrived, and without having devoted yourself to some small part of it in a way that will produce an intricate knowledge of it, you will not be able to live there without misunderstanding it or in some way damaging it or your relationship to it.

5) Anytime one crosses a given stretch of land with some frequency, no matter how exotic it is, the tendency is always toward habit. The big secret of international workers around the world is that our lives don’t actually look much different than the life of a teacher in a small town in Iowa. We all wake up in the morning with items to check off lists, we all have a certain way we like to spend our mornings getting ready for a new day, and we all have ways we like to unwind. May you be in Kearney Nebraska, Dakar Senegal, Congo Brazzaville or Waing Wai Thailand, we are all just human beings trying to live a life, earn a living, and relate to other creatures that populate the planet. No life is truly more exceptional than another.

6) Know that an exceptional life is inherently based on judging your own life by what others are doing. After all, you can only be an exception if there are lots of other lives that are not exceptional around you. For the longest time, I was fueled by the desire to have an exceptional life. I was, as I often heard myself saying, searching for the extraordinarily life. I wanted a life that would inspire envy in others and pride in my parents. I wanted a life that made other people say, “Wow.” What I realized is that by chasing a goal that is heavily based on comparing my life to others, I’d never get there. I would never feel like my life was exceptional. I would always have peers, and I would always have people that made me think, “Wow. Their life is much more remarkable than mine.” Instead, I have turned inside and tried to listen. A great life comes not from comparing my life to the people around me, but from having a life that brings me contentment whether I’m by myself or around other people. What brings me happiness? The chance to listen to and truly hear the stories of others, sometimes repeatedly. The opportunity to write frequently. The ability to spend time with my friends and family. A small loft in a city that I can call a home. Spending time with my dog. Spending time helping others in the global community and in my local community. Those are the things that make me happy. I’m assuming that many would say such things aren’t exceptional at all. Some might consider them boring, unsophisticated, and so on. Frankly, it doesn’t matter what others think about what I do, but only about how I treat others. At the end of the day the only thing that should be extraordinary in life is love.

7) Paradoxically, some of the worst abuses inflicted on nationals by foreigners may have arisen from the foreigner’s discomfort with actually being in the place they so desperately worked to get to. Some of the most heartbreaking stories I have heard in the field about maltreatment has not been by a ruling government, raiding rebels, or a local power hungry business man, but by ex-pats in Embassies, NGO offices, UN building or international businesses looking down at national staff, forever believing in some sort of “us” and “them” mentality. Tragically, I have even seen it happen when a staff member has gone from national staff in their home country, to international staff in a neighboring country. Membership is something we all long for, and sadly a side-effect of seeking membership in places that are not our own tend to me viewing the world around you with a formula that searches for something one can call homogeneous to self. Be wary of that search and try to experience each and every person you come across as an equal. Our homogeneity is our humanity.

There it is, seven lessons learned that I would have liked to have shared to a room full of graduate students looking for meaning and adventure. The trick is to realize that any adventure had is an adventure lost as repetition is monotonous. So go forth and explore and practice your rituals of familiarity in non-destructive ways to others and the planet and try to be wholeheartedly present in what you do and where you go. Be able to sit and be quite at the foot of some tree, in a busy restaurant, in an airport or in your home and feel settled, both in the place and in your awareness of it and maybe, just maybe, you will be able to figure out your calling and know what path to take in a world full of roads.

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