2014 has been a full year. I’ve learned, worked, read, seen, traveled, written, listened, wrestled, mourned, celebrated, and done a lot. 2014 took me to Uganda, Istanbul, Northern California, Seattle, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Croatia, Poland, Slovakia, and Austria. It took me through three internships and one volunteer placement. It reunited me with many dear friends, it introduced me to new wonderful people, and deepened some of the relationships I cherish most. In looking back on 2014, several overriding themes emerge – the lessons I've been learning, the ideas that have challenged me, and the things that have shaped my year and, as a result, me.
One of the greatest, most painful lessons I learned in 2013 was the importance of rest. I saw how detrimental perfectionism, over-commitment, and an overall stressful lifestyle were on my well being. I realized how idiotic our culture’s over glorification of busy really is. So in wrapping up 2013, I vowed to prioritize rest in the New Year. However because of commitments I had made I wasn't able to put this into practice until studying abroad in Hungary this past fall.
My life in Budapest was full, but not overly so, and I know my life back at Calvin will be much busier than my life abroad. However through those fourth months, I experienced the benefits of living a restful life. I had the space in my life there to do the things that are good for my soul – like writing, reading, and volunteering. Instead of plowing through life, I was able to reflect on everything I was experiencing which brought me greater insight, appreciation, and meaning. I felt much more awake and alive. I was filled up, and so in addition to being more content and joyful, I was also in a better place to love others.
Living this way is so counter-cultural to the American society I grew up in. I was talking recently with a friend on this topic and she was saying how we have ceased to be human beings. We are human doers. We are defined by what we do, not who we are. I believe we are called to a rich, flourishing life. And going through life on auto-pilot, over-caffeinated, depleted, and depressed is not how we were made to live. As hard as it is with a demanding schedule, in 2015 I want to continue to prioritize a high quality of life.
One key theme of my semester in Hungary was the importance of place and investing where you are. Our program director from Calvin, Jeff, really emphasized this throughout our time in Budapest. He encouraged us to go deep in Budapest instead of spending our weekends traveling around Europe. He also assigned us to pick a spot in Budapest that would be “our place” and spend a couple hours there a week. I picked Kelet, a bustling café filled with books and art. Through the overall experience of investing in Budapest, and my commitment to Kelet, I realized what a non-committal, temporary, transient culture we live in and how guilty I am of living this way too. I think one thing our world desperately needs is for people to be committed to specific places. When we invest somewhere, whether it’s our neighborhood or a local café, we feel a responsibility for it and its well being. We share life with the people in those places and solidarity forms.
This lesson was one of the greatest takeaways from my semester abroad. In 2015, I want to grow where I am planted in Michigan and in Minnesota. I've felt convicted about the fact that I've lived in Grand Rapids for the past two years yet haven’t gotten to know the city, or cared for it, at all. Just like every person, every place has something to offer. It has a beauty and uniqueness and I want to acknowledge and appreciate that.
Another theme of 2014 has been lament, and the confusion and doubt that accompanies it. It began on the 4th of July when I heard the news that one of my teachers from high school passed away unexpectedly. Matt’s passing hit me hard and it left me grappling for answers and comfort and there weren't really any to be found.
Lament was also a major theme of my semester abroad. Through learning about the history of the region of East-Central Europe, I time and time again came face to face with suffering and injustice. We visited Bosnia and learned about its war and genocide of the ‘90s and the failure of the international community to intervene in a helpful way. Not to mention, the great challenges the country still faces today as a result of the war that ended over 20 years ago. In visiting with World Vision in Romania and on our group excursion to Romania, I learned about the impact communism has had on Romanian society and culture, and how this feeds into the country’s present difficulties. In revisiting the Holocaust through readings and a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I was left to deal with questions of humanity’s capacity for evil, among other things. And then there is Hungary, with its oppressive history of occupations, often being on the losing side of history, and then their complicity with the Holocaust, the communist era, and its currently increasingly authoritarian government... Whew. It was a lot to take in.
One of the classes we took abroad studied social change, so much of the semester was also spent wrestling with the possibility (or lack thereof – it often felt like) of making a positive impact in the world. One book we read was Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist by Bill McKibben on climate change activism and, although there was hope in it, in general it left me devastated. I too often forget about environmental concerns and McKibben’s book was a disturbing wake up call to how critical things really are. It left me depressed, hopeless, angry, and frustrated. However in the face of evil and suffering and injustice, there are two options: give up, wallow, and drink wine in bed or do the little bit you can, with what you have, where you are. I see the latter as the only legitimate option. Lament is painful and cuts us to the core, but I believe it is necessary and central to the human experience. If we love or care at all, it will lead us to sorrow, but is this not better than a life of apathy?
Along the lines of lament is also the theme of knowing the world and still loving it. Another book we read this past fall was Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good by Steve Garber and this is one of his central questions. I love the world, deeply, and it’s a bit hard to unpack what I mean in saying that. Is it the cultures, the diversity of every sort, the richness, the beauty? Is it the way cross-cultural engagement makes me feel alive and connected, a part of something so much greater than myself? Is it the potential I see in the people that live here, the vision I see for the flourishing of this earth? I don’t know. But Garber asks how we can know the world – see the brokenness, pain, inequality, exploitation, violence, racism, sexism, poverty, war – and still love it. I live in this weird balance of studying international development and constantly learning about tragic issues of injustice, yet somehow, miraculously, remaining hopeful and not losing sight of life’s goodness. I think this is a gift, a gift i'm so very grateful for. I don’t think it would be realistic, sustainable, or fruitful to try and work in the field of development without this ability to hold the world's mire and beauty together.
One side effect of living a restful, present, engaged life this fall was my increased ability to notice and appreciate the little things. I was observant and awake to life and as a result I found joy in the smallest moments of life, in the seemingly mundane routines. This bred daily contentment, gratitude, and a desire to make the most of every day. I realized that if we treat every day like it is ordinary, than our lives will be ordinary. If we are constantly looking ahead or waiting on the future to arrive, we will never appreciate the day in front of us or live it to its fullest. Amidst the busyness and routine of life, I want to hold onto this and celebrate all 365 days of the coming year.
2014 has also been a year in which I’ve thought often about community and the relationships in my life. This year I’ve experienced a lot of frustration and disappointment in this area of my life, however I’ve also realized the truly remarkable people God has placed in my life. People I am so very thankful for.
This year I’ve realized my increasing desire to be known by the people around me. I've gotten a glimpse of what beloved community looks like. I’ve realized, humbly, that how you see people might not be how they actually are. I’ve learned the importance of hearing people’s stories, building bridges, and seeking to understand others even when we don’t really want to (largely due to the help of writer Nish Weiseth and her book Speak). I’ve come to see more and more the downfalls of our individualistic culture and how counter it is to how we were made to live. I’ve realized that people need other people, and I’m committed to living this out (I’ve learned this lesson in part with the help of the non-profit To Right Love on Her Arms that deals with mental illness and addiction. I absolutely love their message of hope and commitment to community).
More than any other, the question of what human flourishing looks like in all spheres of life and society has been a question that has marked 2014 for me. The idea of “flourishing” is discussed often at Calvin and especially in my development classes. On a basic level, I see flourishing as the state in which individuals are living in the fullness of life and their potential and when they have the ability to live the life they desire and imagine. So the question I’ve been mulling over is what that then looks like for the individual, practically, and what that looks like at the familial, communal, societal, cultural, national, and international levels. I could go on for a while on this topic, but a few examples of what I think this practically looks like include living in healthy, honest, respectful, mutually-beneficial, right relationships with others and our environment; taking care of our bodies; and being able to support oneself through meaningful and satisfying work.
I believe we are all called to work towards human flourishing in all spheres of society, but especially so if you call yourself a Christian. That could mean being a neurologist and helping people who get frequent migraines (people like me) live healthier lives. It could look like being faithfully present where you live and intentionally pursuing relationships with your neighbors and being available for them. It could mean being a musician and connecting with others, providing solidarity, and speaking truth through art. When Jesus commands us to love God and love our neighbors, I think this is a picture of what that looks like.
I see promoting human flourishing as development work, but then what distinguishes someone like myself, hoping to go into the development field, from an environmentally and socially responsible business woman? I’m not sure yet. And then there is the complication of those who do what would traditionally have been thought of as “development work” but do it in a way that is not conducive to human flourishing. For example, donating t-shirts to a village in Sub-Saharan Africa is generally more detrimental than helpful. By flooding the local market, you risk putting entrepreneurs out of business. You’re damaging their ability to work, support themselves, and as a result, flourish. Another example would be organizations that portray their beneficiaries in a degrading, undignified, desperate light to boost donations. Promoting human flourishing includes affirming the dignity and worth of all people and empowering and partnering with them, not reinforcing superiority and inferiority complexes. I’m not sure if any of this makes sense. My thoughts on the matter are very scattered and I need more time to think it over, but anyways this has been one overriding theme of 2014 for me.
I look forward to 2015 with anticipation for another rich year characterized by intentionality, meaning, and purpose. I’m so excited for the classes I’ll take at Calvin – classes on religion, development, communications, and more – and all they will teach me. I’m looking forward to Calvin’s annual Faith and International Development Conference, always a highlight of my year, Notre Dame’s Human Development Conference, and The Justice Conference. I’m excited to live in an intentional community in Grand Rapids this spring semester and live with friends this coming fall for my senior year. I’m looking forward to the concerts I’ll attend, the books I’ll read, the things I will learn, the ways I’ll grow, the people I’ll meet, and the conversations I’ll share.
I hope to integrate the things I've learned in 2014 into this New Year. However I also want to grow in new ways. At times I'm way too lazy; I tend to waste a lot of time, especially on social media, and that bothers me; and I still don’t live as healthy of a lifestyle as I want to or should (this is one way being lazy factors in). I desperately want to love my body and treat it well and in 2015 I want to work on this. Let’s just say I have a lot of room for growth. But that’s what I love about living. We’re never finished products. We will never arrive at a final destination or a state of perfection. How liberating is that? Life is nothing if not a great journey, filled with detours and disappointments but also surprises and blessings and joy. We fail and we succeed, we fall and we get back up. And that's what I love about New Years, it gives us an opportunity to not only look back, but to look forward and think about who we want to be and how we want to live. It's a new opportunity and its an invitation to begin again and live the lives we imagine. To be alive is the greatest privilege and the grandest adventure, so let’s make the most of it. Here’s to 2015!