For many people changing the world seems impossible to achieve, or at least that’s the way I used to feel. The more experiences I have with giving, the more I believe using compassion, community, and positivity we can create the space where the world can change and heal itself.
I recently volunteered my time to give a boy his first guitar lesson after asking the social worker he lives with if he would like to play. When that day came I was feeling a bit different. I was having a productive day. I have a long list of things to do. I was away from home. I had not eaten lunch yet. I had not prepared. I speak very little Thai. I. I. I. I. I. I. When the time came, I barely wanted to give my time anymore. Oh, and on top of that I was late.
It started off bumpy. I went over to the volunteer house and the social worker told me he was tired. I thought I had missed my opportunity. We sat down and I struggled to communicate with him. He is shy and soft spoken, and I know almost no music related words in Thai. I fumbled, stammered, and stuttered trying to ask him if there is a specific song he wanted to learn.
Frustrated with myself and the situation, I almost threw in the towel. Actually I think we were both ready to give up but then I had an idea. I grabbed pen and paper and I asked him to teach me the words like the name of each finger, string, fret, etc… Oh, and I had great luck in that chords are referred to by their English letters – WINNING!
With my Thai language center now activated, I asked again if their was a song he would like to learn. I figured out he may have understood me the first time. He went home and got a song book and brought it back. We practiced a few chords and he picked them up quickly. I felt joy as I sat and watched him practice the chord changes. Communication can be difficult and frustrating but through persistence we found understanding.
He is a 14-year-old boy who was born with HIV, and no longer has parents. He is very polite, and sweet. He is so very conscientious, that for a long-time he ate lunch alone at school because he was afraid that he would give someone else HIV, as he did not understand how it is transmitted. If I could not feel excited about going to volunteer to help this boy, am I capable of real altruism?
My interpretation is a heartfelt yes. I went into the day wanting to be selfish and wanted to do what we are programmed to do and take the path of no resistance, no effort. But I pushed forward knowing that working with him and honoring my commitment were the right things to do. I did not help him because I was thinking about any personal gain but in the end I was given happiness and joy.
The important thing to me, is that I connected with him on an individual level like I have been unable to so far in my year volunteering here in Thailand. I have been hoping that I could develop a relationship with him, and this was the first step, the hardest step. Regardless if he wants to continue, perhaps what is important is that short time where we were connected as two humans with a shared passion for music, building a community of education and understanding.
As a person who prefers to fill my time, enjoys being productive, and has an almost insatiable appetite for learning, I find that I have to commit to volunteering. The commitment, until I learn to control my selfish desires that fill so many moments of my day, is what helps me continue to volunteer and move forward on my own journey.
“Transforming the mind involves first learning to know it, then identifying how it functions so as to eliminate the three main mental poisons, which are ignorance, desire, and hatred”
The Dalai Lama, My Spiritual Journey, p93, 2010.
That being said, reaching out and helping others purely because you want to help someone, or make yourself happy is an admirable and often necessary place to start. Ruth Payne illustrates the value you can in the realm of poverty:
“Four reasons one leaves poverty are: It’s too painful to stay, a vision or goal, a key relationship, or a special talent or skill.”
A framework for Understanding Poverty, p3, 2015
Anyone who has lived outside of poverty can be that key relationship for someone. In how many of life’s other problems could a key relationship be the difference in a suffering person’s ability to overcome adversity?