Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Missionaries, mercenaries and misfits. How two aid workers came full circle in the development world

This is a guest post from Renee at Satori Worldwide. We met "in the field" while still relatively new moms, and spent many-a-days talking about the difficulties and challenges of balancing family life with aid work: the contradictions, the risks (particularly health risks) that we exposed our children to as a consequence of our choices. In the end, we've both chosen very different answers to our questions, different paths to solve our riddles, which is exactly how it should be.


When my husband and I began our careers in International Development, we were not missionaries in the strictest sense, though we were surely full of a non-sectarian form of ‘save the world’ zeal. The injustice of the world order, and the glamour of a life of working in far-flung places to set it right was all too appealing for two people with a high tolerance for risk.

Almost to the minute of leaving Grad School we set out on our first mission with the United Nations in Uzbekistan, and were quickly initiated into the realities of development as it then appeared: there were no quick fixes; you could work very hard and still feel like nothing was getting done; and poverty, violence & despair didn’t always seem the most inspiring work environment.

As we moved through several subsequent postings (in Europe, Sri Lanka and Cambodia), and began hauling two unsuspecting children from one home to the next, our missionary zeal seemed to morph—subtly but perceptively—into something far more sinister: the mercenary mind. Dinner conversations revolved more and more around what country we might like to live in next, or what contract type and benefits we should be pushing for, rather than the plight of the people we were meant to be serving. Our sense of social justice was ebbing under the influence of a slow and painful cynicism.

So we took stock: When was the last time we felt truly inspired? How many projects had we worked on that had been spoiled by corruption or weighted by bureaucracy? Was sacrificing grandparents for our kids and forfeiting a clean, safe, familiar place for them to grow up in really worth it? How many of our colleagues seemed jaded, high strung or burnt out? Is this the life we had dreamed of? What happened to making a difference?

In fact, we might have noticed the misalignment earlier if we had been paying attention. The symptoms of disintegration were clear. After multiple infections with various tropical illnesses (dengue, typhoid, dysentery), our immune systems had practically collapsed. Progressive irritation with the ‘system’ under which we were employed gave every conversation a world-weary, sarcastic veneer. Anxiety often deprived us of sleep, and what sleep we did get was speckled with recurring nightmares of human rights abuses we had documented, or bombs and gunfire that had gone off down the street. We felt more and more alienated from our friends and family in Canada, who seemed convinced that our life must be easy because we had a maid.

And things were getting tense at home. Frequent travel for work made Steve an absentee father and me a resentful mother. There was a growing concern over the welfare of our children, who lived under the constant threat of pollution, illness and instability. When our son Lochlan contracted a rheumatic fever related heart-murmur because of an undiagnosed strep infection (read: medical malpractice), it seemed time to cry uncle. Yes, it was definitely time to go home. And that we did. But here is the thing: home didn’t feel like that anymore.

We were now, officially, misfits.

It was then that I read a quote by Henry Thurman that practically jumped from the page.

“Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive, because what the world really needs is more people who are alive.”

And right there a little seed was planted… something that would help us rekindle those long lost feelings of adventure, inspiration and justice.

So we hit the road, with both kids in tow, on a quest to recover our integrity.

Along the way we met mystics and naysayers of every stripe, who, one way or the other, were all pointing toward the same grail:

Know yourself. Breathe deeply. Listen carefully. Eat real food. Connect. Create. Cry if you need to. Laugh twice as much.

And the seed began to flower. We created Satori Worldwide to share what we had learned with the people we thought might make good use of it: other, world-weary aid workers like us who want to regain their sense of purpose and passion, and need to learn how to take care of themselves so they can better serve others. We offer retreats, networks and tools that bring meaning, balance and inspiration back into the lives of global servants. So now we are “missionaries” again, promoting development with a big twist… save the world by saving yourself first.

The next Satori Worldwide retreats are 15-22 May and 12-19 June 2011 in Bali, Indonesia. Registration is open and early sign-up discounts are available so contact us at info@satoriworldwide.com for details. Visit our blog and join in the discussion on wellness and resilience in the aid/expat world at www.satoriworldwide.com/blog.

1 comment:

Lisa McKay said...

Great post. Great mission Satori!