It has been seven years since I served as a volunteer in Haiti, a time that was precious, blessed, traumatic, challenging, joyful, and heartbreaking. When I returned to the US in 2013, I struggled through a difficult transition, facing reverse culture-shock in countless ways. My time in a country that faces so much struggle, while simultaneously offering so much love and vibrancy, deeply challenged everything I thought about my own life and the world around me.
As our world is in an uproar over COVID-19, and most of us are forced to stop, put our lives on hold, and wait for a return to normalcy, I reflect about my time in Haiti. I am reminded about what to value, what to let go of, and the things that truly matter.
Here are just a few of the lessons I learned, ones that I wish to share, and try to implement in my everyday life now.
+ Life is precious. Every life.
The countless small encounters we have each day can have meaning. Eye contact, a smile, a genuine hello, a thank you. Each little gesture can have a radical effect on the other person. Lives are changed with the knowledge that someone is validating our story, listening to an experience, or even for a short moment engaging with us. We can love. We can be kind. We can honor the life of another person. There is no financial cost, no monthly donation required.
+ The worst poverty is that of the unloved.
Poverty exists in every culture, even in the wealthiest circles. It may not be material – it may be spiritual or emotional. We all suffer from some form of it – be it insecurity, striving to prove our worth, doubt, fear, comparison, anger. But the worst type of poverty imaginable is the poverty of the heart, the lack of any acknowledgment that one is valued and cared for. How amazing would it be if every person knew their life meant something to another? If we would take the time to dignify others?
+ Treasure and honor the moments you have with each other.
Be present as fully as possible. We simply do not know how many moments we have left! Put down the iPhone, resist the urge to check your email, and just sit and BE with each other. The world can wait while we take time to nurture our human relationships (even though they might have to be a little more digital/virtual during COVID-19 times!). So many of my hours in Haiti involved just sitting and laughing with the nurses and the kids, sharing stories, and learning their language.
+ Life is too short to leave issues unresolved and to remain in conflict with others.
Work to make peace and to resolve disagreements. We do not know if tomorrow will come for any of us. The worst is the unresolved and uncertain situation, where we wish we had apologized or reached out. I also believe that we often tell ourselves it is too late, when all it would take is that one more phone call or letter asking forgiveness.
+ If you love someone, for goodness’ sake, tell them so!
Tell them again and again. Too often, we hesitate to share how we truly feel about those close to us. We are so quick to criticize, and not nearly as ready to compliment and encourage. And yet, what do we all crave? That knowledge that we are valued and worth something to someone, just because we ARE.
+ Great suffering can occur when people feel misunderstood, and when they feel judged by others.
Listen – to both what is being said AND to what is NOT being said. If you do not understand, are confused, or are even offended, ask questions to clarify and reserve judgment.
+ Forgiveness is freeing – both for you and for the person needing your forgiveness.
It is also letting go of the past, and not spending time and energy wishing that it could be any different than it was. (Thank you, T.D. Jakes – I have never forgotten this).
+ Trust is not easily earned, but very easily broken.
When you state something as truth, be sure you mean it. Countless promises have been broken in the lives of the Haitians, by well-meaning volunteers and NGO’s, by foreigners who want to gratify and offer hope. But false hope is just that – false. The same goes for our relationships and friendships. If you state something as fact, be sure you mean it and will cherish it. And if you cannot, be sure to apologize genuinely and without excuses.
+ If the job needs to be done, do it.
Let no duty be “beneath you.” Whatever it takes to contribute to the betterment of your work or home life, be willing to make that effort and honor those around you by doing so.
+ Children are the hope of the world.
If you are ever depressed, discouraged, weighed down by life, look into the eyes of a child, sit and play with him or her. The energy and determination they possess and the joy in their smiles as they discover and share the excitements of their days will bring life and laughter.
+ Never underestimate the impact you are having.
This is not intended to pressure us, but to keep us aware that others are watching us, measuring our actions as we profess a faith or a philosophy. Live out loud, in words and speech, in deed and truth.
+ Laughter is healing. Laughter is hopeful. Laughter is intimacy.
I knew I had reached a level of trust with the nurses in the clinic when we could laugh with each other. I was willing to make mistakes and sound ridiculous as I learned Creole and learned about Haitian life. Humor was a way to reach the one nurse who intimidated me the most. I am the best kind of target for teasing – I immediately fall for it and react strongly. Laughter abounded through each day and put us at ease with one another. It also reminded me not to take myself so seriously.
How I miss Haiti. I miss the genuine presence of each moment, the sun and the laughter and the sounds, the little hands and feet, the sweat and the tears, the chanting of my name, and the full-body hugs of the little ones.
The entire world is afraid right now, afraid of an uncertain future, afraid of the possibility of suffering and loss. We are frenzied, worried, stuck, and intensely cautious.
I offer this reflection as a glimmer of hope amid uncertainty, to learn from a people who continuously face challenge, loss, heartache, and a total loss of control. A people who get up every time they’re knocked down, no matter the cost. A people who fight for each moment and possess faith far beyond mine. The bravery of young children who run after life with abandon, who dance and sing and love and rejoice and embrace each day with all they have.bridget holtz
Let us stay in hope, accept what comes, and learn that even though we do not know what the future will bring us, we can live abundantly in the present moment we have, with the people we have around us.