So, here we go. I’m attempting it. A three part blog post on looking for purpose.
Here’s the topic for part 1: “suffering is a universal, human condition. Its forms and depth vary.”
I will now explain what I mean.
It’s 2014, and I’m living and working in the Caribbean. It’s November, and it’s hot. I’ve left snowy Canada with a suitcase filled with skirts and shorts. To the outside world my life is milk and honey. I’m 25, young, healthy and curious, and on a Canadian-funded internship in Haiti where I’m meant to help out local farmers better market their fair-trade coffee. Sounds fun, right? For the first month we young interns (there are 2 other Canadian girls there with me) are meant to integrate into village life and learn Creole. We all speak French, but the villagers don’t. It’s warm, the local coffee is yum and we spend our hours meandering about the Haitian bush attempting to chat with other young women while munching on sugar cane. Chew, chew and spit out the cane. Sweetness in my mouth. Except that further inside, I’m not OK. Actually, I’m deeply disturbed by what I’m experiencing. I’ve never been to a place this poor before. It feels like I’m in a parallel universe. I keep telling myself that it’s the 21st century and the people around me are often illiterate and pumping water from a well in the village square daily. Their houses are comprised of mud bricks and metal sheets. Their loos are holes in the ground behind the houses. Dusty half-dressed kids run about and are fascinated by our white skin and unkinky hair. Beautiful palm trees sway in the breeze, and the drive down the mountain from the village into Cap-Haitian is lovely (if you divert your gaze from the piles of trash lining the road..). Everywhere people sit about gazing at us and I get the distinct impression that they are waiting for hand outs. I’ve never been this far out of my comfort zone, and it’s agonizing. I have no idea how to sit with any of the paradoxes that I’m experiencing. How can a place be so similar to paradise and to hell all in the same breath? I’m feeling the next layers of my own naivety stripped away. For the first few months I cry myself to sleep at night while attempting to learn as much about Haiti and her history by day. The other girls have international development degrees and some experiences in Africa already under their belt, and they don’t look to me to be so affected by where we are. I’m either at a disadvantage with my cushy business degree, highly-sensitive, over-analytical or a combination of all of the above. I mostly feel isolated and alone. My supervisor at the Quebec NGO who we are meant to report to about our well-being chortles when I tell him that I need my own room because I have no where to practice meditation. I’m thinking that I’m going insane inside of my own head from trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible while he thinks I’m foolish to try to get any peace in hot, mosquito-swatting and villagers-hanging-about-everywhere village environment. He tells me to just relax and let it be. He might as well have told me to sit sit on hot coals. I actually contemplate ditching the whole project 3 months in (unheard of contemplation from the hitherto undaunted Katalina), but out of pure grit I choose to stay and see it through to the end of the 6 months.
Early on I meet a young Haitian man. He is someone unique and he also has something very precious to me. He has something that I want tremendously. He makes me aware of a need I didn’t even know I had.
He has purpose.
I have a degree. By then, I had travelled pretty extensively throughout Europe and North America. I have loving parents and good friends. I have opportunity. But I sure as hell have no idea what to do with my life.
He and I strike up a friendship. A deep friendship. While my privileged story unfolds (for regardless of being a Polish first-generation immigrant in Canada, I still consider myself a participant in the privileged layer of society) he makes me aware of things hitherto unknown to me. I learn about the third passport I had no idea I had: my white skin. I see that I am treated differently because of it everywhere I go in Haiti. This preferential sort of racism disgusts me most of the time although I’m the first to admit that it is occasionally highly useful (jumping the line at the Cuban medical clinic when I get typhoid or getting a seat in a busy restaurant). We chat, we get to know each other. He’s young too, but he knows “the other world” well, he has spent over 8 years already in Montreal, only to return to Haiti to pursue his purpose – building business and bettering his home country. A deep envy grows inside of me, for despite all of my privilege, despite all of my education, travel and advantages in life this profound sense of direction and usefulness to the world eludes me. I want purpose, I desire it with all of my being. I begin to wonder whether I’ll ever find it. There are so many choices. I’m not clear on what my talents are. But what I do see, what I do recognize, is that there is great need everywhere around me. Maybe I can make myself useful here. Maybe Haiti is my purpose.
For a while, I dive into a better understanding of the visible village life around me. Not having enough money, enough to eat, or a decent home to live in are certainly very uncomfortable states of being. The local medical clinic is terribly under-equipped and understaffed. I hear of stories of women about to give birth who have no other choice than to get on the back of a local moto-taxi and make a 90 minute journey to the nearest hospital to give birth. What an ordeal. Our village doesn’t even have electricity yet, and only those with extra means can afford generators and the gasoline to power them. And yet I observe the people to be generally calm, pleasant and smiling. They have each other, and no one is ever alone. There are even 2 or 3 “village crazies” as we call them, mentally sick individuals, who meander the streets often talking to themselves or shouting. They are mostly left alone although they are not excluded. They receive food from neighbours and they are even respected – local superstitions often link their altered mental states to those of the Spirit world. There are no asylums here. How curious. Oftentimes in the morning I can hear the teacher next door expound very basic lessons to her young charges comprised or repeating Christian prayers and French verbs, it all seems quite useless from an educational standpoint, but the kids are happy and laughing and playing together. No one is excluded or bullied or left alone in a moment of sadness. There is a sense of relaxation, peace and togetherness in that village which, in some ways, makes it feel like the safest place on Earth.
While I stay in touch with the “developed” world and my friends and family in Canada, USA and Europe, I start seeing the contrasts in what people are struggling with. These are the so-called “first world problems” we laugh at. They are trivialities such as a slow high-speed Internet and the wrong type of cheese when you order your fancy meal at a five-star restaurant. I scoff at these problems. But I don’t scoff at the mentions of depression and isolation. So many people are deeply sad, and they feel caught up in a painful, money-powered system that they can’t get out of. So many people, much like myself, have lost the something intangible, beautiful and nurturing – that sense of purpose. They aren’t even sure they ever had it to begin with.
Fast forward 2 months later, and I’m in our NGOs office in Cap-Haitian enjoying a local coffee and chatting to our gardener. He’s a bright, middle-aged fellow and eager to exchange with the “blancos”, as we are often called there. As so many Haitians do, he begins our conversation with asking me how I like Haiti. I tell him that I like it very much, at which point he says, again in typical Haitian fashion, shaking his head in sadness “ah yes, but there is so much misère“. I pause, for something inside of me is urging me to steer this conversation into a different direction than usual. I nod once, looking at him. “I don’t deny that there are many problems in Haiti”, I tell him, and I take a deep breath and plow on “but please understand that we also have many problems in the West”. He gazes at me, and I continue. “In the West we don’t generally have the same kind of problems. Many people have enough water, and electricity and food. But many people also feel lost and sad and isolated a lot of the time. There is a problem called depression, like a long-standing, deep sadness, which is on the rise.”, I explain to him, and I add for emphasis, “we also have some people who are so sad and feel so hopeless that they commit suicide.” He gazes at me, the eyebrows rising. “Suicide almost never happens here.” he states, and then he asks me “why are your people so sad if they have so much?” I smile to myself at the simplicity and depth of this question. “I think it’s because we are overwhelmed by choices – because we can do everything, we are unsure of what to choose, of what is best for us and our families. It’s very difficult to know what to choose.” and I continue, scanning the courtyard strewn with sunshine and flowers as though searching for my own answers, “and I think we feel isolated because we are taught to value our own individual success and so we easily feel separate from others.” I finish. The gardener nods wisely and reflects. Then he adds: “Here we have big families and always there is someone to talk over your problems with. You never feel alone.” he smiles at me. and I tell him that I too have noticed this and I value it very much. I also thank him for taking a moment to chat with me about this.
While this conversation took place over 6 years ago, I have often thought of it.
While it is a beautiful pursuit to improve the lives of those who do not have enough material means, I no longer think that it is a nobler or better pursuit than other pursuits. Ultimately, suffering exists everywhere, only its form varies slightly. Ultimately, intentional kindness and service to others brings value whether we are feeding bellies or we are feeding souls. We humans need to intake nutrients on many levels, and we need it regularly.
I went to the “third world” searching for my purpose and while I don’t regret a single minute spent in either Haiti or in Senegal, I no longer see my purpose as being tied to a place or to an action. I see it now as tied to a meaning – and for me that means healing and opening human hearts, everywhere and in every which way. The “how”of how that happens is secondary. At least I found my Why.