Unfortunately, we ended up with only one day in the community. Due to volcanic activity near the capital city, our arrival was delayed by two days. An entire day of bus travel is necessary to reach the community, and another day, we had a planned excursion with our partner nonprofit organization to learn more about their model.
But that one day was intensely productive: We met with eight community leaders, opened new lines of communication with them, facilitated a tower-building activity with the elementary school students to develop their problem-solving skills, and attended Ash Wednesday mass. (I am a baptized Catholic.)
But when we left the community, gritty and greasy, I felt unfulfilled. Maybe I just wanted more time, but something felt incomplete. Why?
Spring break service trips are common among college students, and I get the impression that most students return from them with a brimming sense of self-congratulation — pride in having taught English for three days or having brought bottles of ibuprofen to a remote nation, humility for having briefly sacrificed their high standard of living to see how “others” have it.
There’s a buzzword that circulates throughout many organizations to describe what many of these trips amount to: “unsustainable.” After all, they say, while you might have removed a tapeworm from some child’s stomach, you’ve done nothing to change the conditions that caused it. That child still has no access to clean water, still bathes in unsanitary facilities, and will surely get another tapeworm.
They even call it “tourism.” It often benefits the giver more than the receiver. One can return to his comfy life with self-congratulation. The other cannot.
I understand this attitude, but I’m not fond of it. It’s defeatist. It suggests that unless someone can implement an elaborate, “sustainable” solution, then helping anyone is worthless. Why give a homeless man five dollars if it cannot resolve his current state? This attitude is also misleading because any improvement, however temporary, is still improvement. Affording a meal, even one, is meaningful.
But then there’s the matter of cultural colonization. Spring break travelers can unintentionally carry along their own culture’s conceptions of health, beauty, or happiness and export them to communities that were content. If these exports adversely remodel their social or economic structures, for example, by creating demand for products that the communities cannot access or afford, you’ve actually just worsened their lot. Not helped. Hurt. In countries with histories of actual colonization (which is most of the world outside Western Europe), cultural exports can be especially sensitive. This is another facet of sustainability.
In the face of apparent impossibility, then, how can one individual or student organization with limited resources change the world?
The search for purpose and satisfaction is much like a treasure hunt without a map — and without evidence that any treasure exists. As it relates to my profession, my zigzag path of clues has crossed more fields than I can remember. In the past year alone, I’ve considered biological research, policy-making, medicine, and public health as careers, sampling each and finding the same vague evidence that purpose and satisfaction are buried there, wanting to dedicate myself fully to one but fearing that I have greater opportunities and talents elsewhere.
And fearing that my impact will be inconsequential there.
Humans are naturally fearful of this, of meaninglessness, of being forgotten by a world that will, inevitably, continue without us. Without me. And without you. Great leaders have built monuments of themselves. Sure, when authoritarian leaders do it, they’re leveraging them as political tools to hedge their rule. But I bet, deep down, they do it out of that existential fear of inconsequentiality, too.
How did we get to empathizing with authoritarians?
Right, changing the world.
Due to our flight delay, we got two days in Miami, and we spent one evening at South Beach. Service trip? The vast ocean, over which hung heavy gray clouds, reminded me of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. The protagonist Edna spends the greater portion of the book attempting to free herself from the shackles of gender norms. She flagrantly violates them, fights them to the detriment of her marriage and relationships. By the book’s end, though, the norms have decidedly won.
Finding herself unable to free herself that way, and unwilling to remain their slave, Edna decides to free herself by another: Suicide. By drowning.
“She [swam] on and on. She remembered the night she swam far out, and recalled the terror that seized her at the fear of being unable to regain the shore. She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end.”
I am Edna. We all are. The world is full of undesirable circumstances, unhealthiness, sorrow, plight. When we find ourselves in these, be they social, political, or personal, and many of us have the misfortune of remaining perpetually trapped in them, we have a choice: confront them or remove ourselves from them. In many cases, the latter option is unavailable to us, except by the route Edna took.
As humans, born fighters, we confront the circumstances. We beat back against undesirable conditions or norms. But change is stubborn. It’s like beating against the ocean. We spend a day in rural Guatemala, teaching engineering skills to children that will almost surely become farmers. We remove spoonfuls of water from the ocean at a time, tossing them behind us and occasionally admiring our progress but constantly aware of the apparent endlessness of the task before us.
We wonder whether or not the task even merits the effort.
They still didn’t understand. But then one boy shifted. He folded a card and added it atop to start the next level. We made eye contact. And he smiled.