Friday, July 22, 2011

Open Eyes, Open Mind

Hi!  Okay, let’s start by getting some of the basics out of the way.  This blog is going to be about my journey to Uganda, where I will be spending the next two years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps.  My name is John, I’m 23 years old, and I’m from south-central Pennsylvania.  I graduated from Bucknell University last year, and have spent this past year at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, working through the first part of a master’s program that is connected to the Peace Corps.  While I was in Florida, I took all of the classes needed for a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering, and, during my time overseas with the Peace Corps, I will need to find a research topic for a thesis.  Once that thesis is all done (which will probably happen a little while after returning from Uganda), that will finish up the master’s degree.

All right, I think that might cover the less interesting bits of information; now for a little more about my motivations for wanting to serve in the Peace Corps.  Over the last several years, I have been fortunate enough to have my eyes opened, to see small parts of this world where life is drastically different from what many of us experience in the United States.  In many places on this planet, access to the fundamental necessities of life (clean water, food of sufficient quantity and quality, adequate shelter, basic health services, education, etc.) is not a given.  In fact, many suffer from a severe lack of these essentials, and their lives are constantly at risk because of these unmet needs.  There is something horribly inhuman about a situation in which human beings are not guaranteed what is perhaps their most basic right: the right to live.  And these injustices do not only harm the people who we often refer to as disadvantaged, unfortunate, poor, “the least of these,” although that harm, by itself, should be enough to push us to confront the problems we have created.  I think, in actuality, we adversely affect ourselves when others do not have the opportunity to flourish.  As I see it, one of the greatest strengths of the human race is its diversity, with numerous cultures, traditions, and philosophies allowing us to see the world through many different lenses.  By bringing together these various perspectives in cooperation, new and creative options can arise that may be able to lead us forward into a better future and expand our understanding of the universe and ourselves.  When some of humanity’s voices are silenced by poverty, oppression, or injustice, a portion of our collective diversity is lost, at least for a time, and we all suffer from that loss, even if we do not seem to be directly affected by the situation.

Certainly, we are flawed beings, living in imperfect societies, and perhaps these issues are to be expected, given our track record.  Yet, I still feel that hope for a better world does exist.  Along with the heartbreaking conditions we might sometimes see on the news, in television commercials, and in documentaries, inspiring stories of perseverance, compassion, and kindness can also be found in the lives of the people and organizations living and working on the ground.  More and more small rays of light are piercing through the darkness, and, sometimes, they might even threaten to overcome that darkness.  Simply put, I think that, as long as humanity endures, hope remains, due to the great potential of the human spirit.

In my own quest to discover my place in all of this, I’ve been drawn to the Peace Corps for a number of reasons.  First, in a very general sense, having seen a tiny bit of the injustice and poverty that affects many parts of the world, I feel a pressing urge to try and live a life in solidarity with those who suffer, working together to help enrich the well-being (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) of all people.  (As a side note, I think it’s important to say that this is not some completely selfless desire…by building relationships with others, we also enrich ourselves, and I’m almost positive that I’m going to take away so much more from this Peace Corps thing than I give.)  Beyond that, it seems to me that the Peace Corps has the right idea when it comes to development work.  The model is not to simply send someone into a community, do a project, and then move on.  Instead, a volunteer is stationed in a location for two years, and, from what I’ve read and heard, much of the emphasis is on building relationships, discovering and understanding different cultures, and simply living in harmony with the community.  In my (very limited) experience, I think that beginning with these fundamentals is the best way to foster an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, so that all members of the community can work together and effectively deal with the issues that are present.

In terms of specifics about my Peace Corps assignment, I don’t have too much to say right now.  I’ll be heading to Uganda on August 3rd, with a bunch of other new volunteers, and we’ll train together over there for ten weeks.  Near the end of training, we’ll receive specific assignments and learn where in the country each of us will be stationed.  All I know now is that I will be a health volunteer, which is obviously pretty broad.  With this uncertainty in mind, I’m coming to the last part of this first post.  My plan is to end each post with a discussion of a certain idea or concept that I see as a fundamental part of what I believe.  And just so you know, this last section might sometimes get a bit more spiritual than the rest of the post, since my thoughts often return to issues of spirituality.  At any rate, with the uncertainty of my specific jobs and activities over the next couple of years in mind, my concept for today is:


What does it mean to have an open mind?  It seems that, generally, when we hear the words “open mind,” we think of an honest willingness to consider new ideas and viewpoints.  Beyond this, we can realize that, even if those ideas are different from our current thoughts, they could still have value and reveal important truth.  Here’s an example: for my entire life, I have considered myself a Christian, but my conception of what that means has changed quite a bit over the years.  By reading all sorts of books on various aspects of theology and through discussions with people who know a great deal more than I do, I have realized that the Christian tradition is one of incredible richness and diversity, and I’ve discovered a number of concepts that are not prominent in the traditional, western church.  My searching also lead me to learn a bit about other religions as well, which allowed me to see that these other faith traditions can also provide valuable insights into the human soul, nature, and the universe as a whole.  Now, my desire to explore and learn persists, and many of my ideas about what it means to be a Christian have been transformed, generally moving toward a greater focus on social justice, equality, peace, and a love for all of humanity that is actively (and nonviolently) seeking these goals.  Through this process of questioning my faith and being open to new thoughts, I feel that my faith has actually grown stronger.

I am hoping to bring a similar openness of mind and heart to my time in Uganda.  Because, right now, I have relatively little knowledge about what I’ll be doing, I am trying to go in with few, if any, expectations.  I don’t want to come in with a whole bunch of preconceived notions about what I can do for the Ugandan people.  Rather, I think my understanding of what I can do with the Ugandan people should flow organically out of my experiences in the country.  Obviously, at least some of this will be determined when I receive my specific assignment at the end of training, but I think there will be at least some very open-ended aspects of that assignment, requiring some creativity on my part.  Hopefully, that creativity will be helped along by having an open mind and by making a sincere effort to be present in the moment, taking things one day at a time (hence the title of this blog)…We’ll see what develops over the next few months!

Well, this was a very long first post…I’m hoping to do one more before leaving the country.  I don’t think that one will be quite so long…this took a long time to write!