Saturday, April 02, 2005

Before You Head out the Door

Haiti changed my life - so the first thing I did when I got home, naturally, was tell everyone to stay away. If you’re anything like I was at 19, and you come back from a country like that (where for the first time I met a little kid who could barely keep his eyes focused from lack of food, where pretty teenaged girls who talk to you on the street turn out to be pretty teenaged prostitutes, and where at goat-filled downtown marketplaces grown men strip naked to protest the breakdown of society, or their own lunacy, or maybe both) you tend to come back a little bit drained, a little bit cranky, and a little bit confused about the world. It was a triple-hit combo to my system … and I didn’t feel quite myself for quite some time.

So picture Counselor Ghadirian coming all the way over to my mountains in B.C., wanting to stir up the local youth, and my travel-weary body perched in a chair right beside him at the front of the room. He turns to me and asks me to say a few words about my experience in Haiti, and all I can come up with is, “It was hard. Really hard. Way, way harder than anything you can remotely imagine.” The Counselor bit his lip for a second, then changed the subject. Possibly not quite what he wanted to hear. It was only climbing into my pickup after the meeting that I realized he wanted me to try and inspire those kids to travel-teach too, and I thought, man, I could just as easily have said something positive, like that all the trouble was worth it.

In Canada, I grew up to have a smart, sarcastic personality, which I used to sail through pretty much any social situation I might encounter. In Haiti, that personality suddenly didn’t fly anymore. Wisecracks weren’t a legitimate response to street kids, or to the whippings given to the lucky ones who went to school. Problem was, I didn’t have a plan-B personality to fall back on - and so I clammed up tight, scared speechless about reacting in the wrong way, and all I could do was open my eyes and hope for an answer. Gabrielle, who was on the Haitian NSA, reacted to streetkids by adopting two teenaged boys by the age of 24. Glen, another NSA member, reacted to whippings by climbing on the back of a motorbike and meeting with principals of rural schools all day long, coming home at night and collapsing onto his bed in a thin, sunburnt heap. I barely said a word, but I scribbled everything down in my diary like a man possessed, and I thought - “I don’t know how to help here yet. But I’m going to go home and get the training I need, and I’m coming back.”

There is training we can get. Engineering and teaching degrees, and everything else we can study will help. The Guardian wanted us “to study more, not to study less”: Glen was a Harvard medical anthropology grad, and this opened doors with school-reform NGOs so he could help those kids. And my trip to Haiti was just before the days when Ruhi became a plug-and-play system for serving abroad … the second you train yourself as a facilitator, you have a tool to help transform communities from here to Zanzibar.

The other half of the equation, though, is developing a personality that’s at home in the world, that’s fueled by the urgent miseries out there instead of freaked out, that bursts with the same kind of committed compassion that made Gabrielle adopt her boys. “A world … enmeshed in the coils of economic anarchy and strife-such is the spectacle presented to men's eyes … So sad and moving a spectacle … far from casting dismay into the hearts of His followers, or paralyzing their efforts, cannot but deepen their faith, and excite their enthusiastic eagerness to arise and display, in the vast field traced for them by the pen of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, their capacity to play their part in the work of universal redemption proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh.” And that’s a change you can’t learn in any school. It’s something you can only figure out in the thick of things, depending on your community and your own frail prayers to outwit your fear and see yourselves become “the stars of the heaven of understanding, the breeze that stirreth at the break of day, the soft-flowing waters upon which must depend the very life of all men, the letters inscribed upon His sacred scroll.” That right there is what I should have said to those kids in the mountains of B.C. You are the instrument through which this world will be changed - and there is no better way to discover the might inside you than by travelling and putting it to the test, time and time and time again, until it sticks.


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