Originally posted December 7, 2011, at Come Alive. Republished with permission of the author.
There are a lot of things that I have learned already and I want to share with you.
Your grass can be greener
There is the old saying that the grass is greener on the other side. I have learned that it is all a matter of perspective.
One of the initial challenges that I struggled with was the sub-conscious expectations that I seemed to have for myself, for the work that I would be doing and for my overall experience here.
As the first few weeks passed I saw and heard about what many of the other volunteers were doing and what their sites were like. I began to compare my experience with the experiences of others and felt that my time here had not been as fulfilling.
I quickly realized that having a pity-party for myself would not be a good way to help my situation. Although my experience is different than everyone else’s, it is still worthwhile. As Desmond Tutu said, “A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Wholeness depends on how we experience our lives.” So there may be greener grass on the other side but, with a little nurturing and care, mine can be just as nice!
Africans own the time
When I was in Tanzania a wise and wonderful man once said, “Americans own the watches; Tanzanians own the time.”
For many people here, time is just a grouping of numbers with little significance. The lack of punctuality can be frustrating having grown up in a place where “time is money,” but I am trying to have a more relaxed mindset and I have become much more flexible instead of worrying about the numbers on my wrist because I have also learned that —
Being present matters
I often wonder, as I am sitting in a meeting or a four-hour church service where I do not understand anything that is being said, how it would be different if I were not there.
I do not think that it would be different, per se, but I know that people would notice. I think that a lot of us can take the ELCA’s model of accompaniment and apply it to our own lives whether we are living in another country or not.
Simply put, it is all about relationships. During my short time here I am not going to solve the HIV and AIDS crisis or world hunger, but I can be a friend and I can be there for support.
I can build relationships that cross barriers and break down walls and stereotypes that people have. It might not seem like the most exciting way to make a difference, but sometimes just being can be enough.
It seems so simple but just taking the extra time to smile at the people you walk by or taking a few minutes to talk to them and ask how they are doing or how their weekend was can make a huge difference. It might not seem like much, but it can be bigger than you know.
Attitude of gratitude
People want to feel appreciated, but people are not thanked enough for the things that they do. I am not doing what I am doing so that people will thank me, but I know it is always nice to hear.
I have been making an effort to be more thankful, not only to the people that I am around but also for the overall experience that I am having. There are times when things are frustrating, but it is much better to look at the positive things and be grateful for all that I have.
One of the best things that I have learned to do is ask questions. There is no better way to get information or clarification or to find out someone’s point of view.
I think that in the age of the Internet we often think we can find the answers online much easier than taking the time to talk to someone. At times it may be easier, but you won’t always get the best answer.
A person is a person through other people
The more that I think about all the people that have been in my life to make me the person I am today the more grateful I am.
It does make me miss a lot of people that are back in the States, but at the same time I know that I am also being changed through the people here.
And the best part is that we are all connected as humans, and we make each other more human through our relationships with each other.
As Frederick Buechner said, “You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.”
Embrace the tension
The biggest lesson for me to learn has been being OK with struggling. When things are going bad, I can get very down on myself instead of using the situation to learn about myself and challenge myself.
There are going to be more days that are not easy, and I am going to continue to encounter difficulties throughout this journey. The thing that is most important, however, is seeing these situations as opportunities to grow both as an individual and within this community.
Find a link to Jordan Muller’s entry on the blog Come Alive at Lutheran Blogs.