2013 was an interesting year that flew by faster than I can believe. It isn't a year I’m necessarily proud of, but amidst the mistakes I learned heaps about life, and I want to share my top learnings with you:
Death is inevitable, so live fully
I mean, obviously. But before 2013 I had never had anyone close to me die. My Grandma Phyllis suffered with Alzheimer’s for close to five years before she passed away in February. We knew her death was coming, and it was for the best since she was in pain, but it still shook me that she was actually gone. Just like that; breathing one moment and not the next. Seeing her lying in a casket forced me to realize that one day that will all be us; we will all lie in a casket one day. Our life is so, so short, and so, so fragile. I began to fear death, not for myself, but that I would lose those closest to me. And I still do, but facing death for the first time has challenged me to daily appreciate the people in my life and live in a meaningful, courageous way so that by the time I am lying in the ground I will have lived a full life, a life that isn't regretful of wasted years.
Poverty is not a choice
In March I co-led a service-learning spring break trip to Knoxville, TN where we volunteered with a rehabilitation center for girls age 13-18. Many of the girls had been court ordered to the agency because of drug or alcohol abuse. Our group was able to talk and hang out with the girls at meal times and in the evenings, and through those conversations my eyes were opened to the reality of poverty for so many here in the United States.
These are the kids that are stereotyped, looked down upon, thrown away, ignored, and forgotten about. They are the fourteen-year-old moms, the raped, the young addicts, the abused, the runaways, the trafficked, the ones with mental illnesses, the statistics. They are the face of poverty in the U.S. Yet getting to know them not as statistics but as fellow sisters, and hearing their stories, broke my heart and suddenly I understood, and didn't blame them, for the choices they've made and how they have ended up. When your mom is in jail and you’ve never met your dad and you live with an abusive uncle in a crack house… do you expect anything but addiction, pregnancy, and eventual homelessness?
The girls I met are products of the environment they were born into. I didn’t choose to be born into a stable, affluent home in the suburbs, but I was; and as a result, I’m now a college student with opportunities and dreams for the future. These girls were born into instability, and as a result they now have scars and a shaky future. Neither of us chose the lives we were given, but they have shaped the paths we are now on. It showed me that we can not judge those in poverty without first looking at their story.
That whole “stop and smell the roses” thing has something to it
2013 sped by and was a blur simply because I didn't take the time to enjoy every day. Pathetically, I was often confused about what day, month, or even time of year it was. I was simply in survival mode, making it through the day’s activities without truly embracing or experiencing the moment; without taking the time to go to the apple orchard in the fall, or watch the snow as it fell, or stop and close my eyes and appreciate the sensation of the sun warming my skin in the summer. I was so focused on the details and the task at hand that I forgot to look up and remember why I’m doing all these things in the first place. I don’t want to live life this way. I want to live fully engaged, experiencing the seasons and little moments, not letting them pass me by without even realizing it. So naturally…
Enjoying life should actually be a priority
Overall, I didn't enjoy life in 2013. Particularly this past fall semester I was over-committed, and quite honestly, miserable. I had some great conversations with my philosophy professor and he helped me realize that God wants me to simply enjoy my life. This past year I lived for my goals, I lived for my to-do list (which, by the way, never ends), I lived for my academic achievements, and for my resume. Living this way left little time to connect with others, to invest in things of eternal value, to simply breathe and enjoy the beautiful life God has given me. I used to see relaxation and “enjoying-life --activities” as a waste of time, but now I see them as of the utmost importance. We get one life, it’s pretty short, and I’d rather not spend it "successful" by the world's standards but internally miserable.
Our purpose is to live in relationship with God and others
When I’m not fulfilling my purpose of being in a relationship with Christ, things get messy and ugly real quick. Time and time again I find myself trying to do things on my own strength… which explains why I have been weary, burdened, and depressed recently. I wasn't meant to walk through life alone, “save the world” alone, juggle these responsibilities alone… and yet I keep trying. When I’m loving God He enables me to do the things He has called me to. He keeps my passion alive, He carries my burdens, and He gives me strength to make it through the day with grace and joy.
Beyond our relationship with God, being in relationships with others is also vital. It is through relationships and living in community that we are challenged and strengthened, and we become the best, most beautiful version of ourselves. Community is hard and relationships are difficult, painful, and uncomfortable at times, but so, so necessary. We learn to love others despite their flaws, and we are loved in return despite ours. This year I have also been realizing the importance of having relationships with those who are different than us, whether that is in terms of gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, beliefs, social status, etc. Diversity opens our eyes to new ideas, beliefs, cultures, ways of doing things, and worldviews. This diversity is necessary in order for us to reach our full potential and live the best life possible. I have experienced the richness that comes from having friends that are different in many ways from me, and it is truly a treasure.
Development work is… hard
The more I study international development, the more I realize how incredibly complex the conflicts and challenges in our world are. There are so many factors that contribute to poverty, to the failures of certain nations, and to the success of others. Our global society is ever changing and evolving, growing and improving for some, and becoming more difficult and painful for others.
What I know is: We are deeply interconnected, our actions have consequences and impact those around the world; the world is deeply intricate and multifaceted and we may never fully understand the reality of situations, but regardless we must be diligent in learning what we can; we must be humble as we go about this work, not assuming we have all the answers and acknowledging our own brokenness; and ultimately, we are called to serve and love others.
The doubts and questions I still have are: what is the most effective, meaningful, mutually beneficial way to serve others in every situation? What does loving others practically look like? What role can I play, if any, as a “white, privileged” woman from the U.S.? And how do I reconcile the great commission (reaching every nation for Christ) with development work?
So in 2013, I learned a lot about what truly matters, what my priorities should be, and how to live a life in pursuit of meaning, beauty, and love. So here’s to 2014, a year I hope to: