Over two years ago I made the decision to leave a life I had always known for an adventure I had always dreamed of. This adventure is now coming to an end. It is time to reflect.
I think that we, as humans, have a nasty habit of lying to ourselves; and I think that this tendency is exacerbated in the field of development work. I am going to blaze a trail here and share the truth. So, with that in mind, I have a confession to make: I have not saved the world. In fact, the sum total of people I have saved throughout this entire experience is one: me.
When I look back it is clear to me that saving myself has been the goal right from the beginning. Any lofty dreams I may have professed about helping others, giving back, making a difference, etc. all had at their core one selfish desire: to save myself. I probably always knew this subconsciously, but at some point during the course of my service it made its way to the surface, and I struggled to come to terms with it for some time.
Eventually, what I realized was this: selfish philanthropy is not an oxymoron. On the contrary, selfishness is an indispensable ingredient in successful development work, and being able to admit this is both healthy and productive. I realized that the more that I put into my work the more I was going to get out of it; that this was not a personal sacrifice on my part for the benefit of others, but rather a mutually beneficial arrangement, wherein an investment of myself in the welfare of others was paid back to me with exponential dividends. (I do not think that I am unique in this respect, and I believe the field of development work as a whole would be more effective if this was acknowledged.)
And so, in light of this, I see my time spent here as wildly successful. On a community level we have seen many victories. We have created a recycling and environmental education program, built a new school, developed a thriving artisan industry (side note: we just received two very large orders that should keep the women working for at least the next six months), published a community tourism guidebook, created and implemented an accounting system and instituted many other administration practices for the management of the tourism project; and, as of this coming week, we will have opened a new community learning center!
(We have also seen failures. That same tourism project today stands in jeopardy of being destroyed, after 16 years of hard work building it into one of the most successful projects in the country, because of jealousy, stubbornness and dirty politics. I, personally, have spent countless hours and energy trying to mediate and resolve the situation, only to have to resolve myself to the fact that you cannot reason with the unreasonable, and that not all battles are mine to win.)
And thanks to all of this community development work, on an individual level, this experience has fundamentally changed my life. I arrived here with 32 other amazing people in January of 2009, and this January (2011), 29 of us attended our Close of Service conference. One of the activities we did was to vote on group superlatives. I was pumped to have won “most books read”; after all I had put a lot of effort into reading as much as I could. But, the second superlative I was given came as a real jolt: “most changed”.
Have I really changed that drastically? I think that time will be the judge of that. But for right now, although it is difficult to put in words all the ways in which I feel I’ve benefited from this experience, I am going to try and sum up a few of the highlights:
Living in the isolated, farming community of San Rafael Chilascó has been an almost indescribably rewarding experience (despite the disappointments). The warm-hearted people of this town have welcomed me into their homes and lives, and shown me that you can have dirt floors and still be unequivocally happy. This has allowed me to see, in a very real way, that true happiness is not dependent upon, nor can it be derived from, material wealth. To me this is no longer a cliché, rather it is deep-seated truth born out of meaningful experience. It will forever play a role in my life.
Furthermore, as a byproduct of this, I have learned to more fully appreciate the blessings and opportunities that my life is brimming with. I no longer feel guilty or embarrassed for these things, nor do I feel superior because of them. What I do feel is that to take them for granted is an affront to those that are not as fortunate. I feel that the only way to truly deserve these blessing is to try in earnest to make the best of them, while always remaining conscientious, respectful and grateful.
As an additional bonus, I have never felt closer to my family. Love does not heed the laws of gravity, rather it rebels against them; distance only strengthens the force. Being apart has shown me how important it is that we always stay close. The close-knit family (and community) structure here has been very inspiring.
Before I came to Guatemala I was at a crossroads in my life. I was struggling to find happiness, searching for a direction in my career, and constantly worried about the future. I will leave here at the end of this month happier than I have ever felt in my life, more focused than I have ever been, and enormously excited about what the future will hold. So I may not have saved the world, but I have unquestionably saved myself, and hopefully did some sustainable good along the way.