Over this summer, and through the Global Social Benefit Fellowship, I got to work with some of the most amazing students. The other fellows in the program have shaped my perspectives on social justice into new forms. I am so proud of the fellows who I got to work with over the past 10 months. They inspired me to think about the world differently, with new eyes. Growing up I was basically unaware of the implications of widespread social injustices both on individuals and on society at large. After this fellowship, whether it’s from the people who surrounded me or from my own personal experiences in Ghana and in my own heart and mind, I have forever been changed.
I have been known to be a compassionate and caring yet wholly self-centered person. I don’t mean to say that I am selfish or inconsiderate of others, only that I have a habit of letting my ego lead me in some ways. Because my ego has been so strong over the last number of years, I have missed some important discoveries about the world around me. Because I am a (mostly) white man living in America I have been afforded privileges that I have known about intellectually but have never really understood practically. The past few months have shifted my perspective about my own privilege as well as the responsibility that comes with it.
Before the fellowship began I was sure that I would start a company after graduation to help people in other countries. I had travelled to Laos and wanted to head back to start a company. During the fellowship I felt firsthand the discomfort of starting a social enterprise and learned just how hard it is. I am not ashamed to say that I decided that now is not the time for me to set out and solve all the world’s issues. However, I don’t intend to let all my social aspirations drop to the wayside.
While I was abroad in Ghana I realized just how many problems there are in the US. It’s rather backwards that only by travelling around the world was I able to see how many problems there are in my own country. While I was in Ghana, there were three mass shootings in the US. I read about the incredible statistics surrounding opioid overdose deaths. I learned that countless American veterans commit suicide after coming home. Our media system is broken and influenced by money before truth. Over 80% of the stock market is owned by the top 10% of wealth holders, meaning that “shareholders first” really means the top 10% first. I learned from fellows about what it’s like to be a woman and how much harder life is so consistently. I learned about the jail system in the US and how it’s set up to provide free labor (aka slave labor). All of the systemic issues in the US spurred me to rethink what it means to be a social justice warrior. I was so convinced before the fellowship that the best place to make an impact on the world was overseas and yet as I learned more, I found that solving the systemic issues here in the US will have positive ripple effects around the world.
The next question I found myself thinking of had to do with how I can personally contribute to the betterment of the world. There are countless problems and each is equally important. I realized that I can’t come close to solving all of them or even many of them. In life, we are who we are and we have the skills that we have. Even if a problem is the most important problem to solve, it doesn’t mean that I should be the one to solve it. Every problem has to be solved by the person or people who are most qualified to solve that issue. For me, I have to figure out how who I am aligns with the problems that exist and not how to manipulate myself to match the problem that I want to solve. For example, I am a writer and an artist. In Coldplay’s new album a lyric goes: “Music is the weapon, music is the weapon of the future.” Coldplay is one of the most famous and widely listened to bands of this era and chose to address real issues in their recent album. Just because they are artists doesn’t mean they can’t make an impact, and in fact, because of they station are uniquely qualified to have a huge ripple effect.
I have always thought that being an artist is a lesser path. I have strived to be in business, to make money while changing the world, and to start social enterprises. As I get older and more acquainted with my strengths, I realize that every path in life can be used to change the world for the better and that perhaps I’m not destined to be a social entrepreneur. My task right now is to identify where what I love to do overlaps with what I am best at. If I do that, then problems will simply fall away in front of me. Macklemore addresses this concept eloquently:
Don’t try to change the world, find something that you love
And do it every day
Do that for the rest of your life
And eventually, the world will change
This is one of my favorite concepts because it shows that changing the world isn’t about trying to change the world–it’s about being you. Authentic action leads to change. Being yourself changes the world… Let that sink in. All you have to do is do what you love and you will change the world. For so long I have thought that I need to be like those who have come before in order to change the world. I’ve been led astray. It’s so much simpler than people make it seem. In Adam Grant’s book, Originals, he writes about how only non-conformists can shape the future. I completely believe this.
As I think back over my summer, I’m honestly not sure of every way that I have been changed. I’m not sure what is right or wrong but I do know that I am thinking about these questions… constantly. I can’t stop talking about climate change, about social injustices, about the vernacular of the future, about the horrors happening around the world and in our own country. My mind has forever been opened to the realities of the world. I know that no matter what path I walk down in life, I will always be influenced by my experience this summer.
I learned how to open my mind and heart to the atrocities of the world while aligning myself with who I am. With the influence of reality affecting my every step, how could I not use my talents, my skills, and my life to try to change the world? It seems impossible to ignore these issues now. This summer helped me see the truth both in the world and in myself.
For years, I have been told to follow my passions, my dreams, visions. When I first read the Alchemist, I started to watch for signs–I started to listen to my heart. I have endured, as many have, a lifetime of searching, longing for my calling to beckon to me, to scoop me up out of my mundane day-to-day and lift me into the life I am “meant” to live. There has been so much riding on this idea of a calling, a passion, a spark.
Today, as I finished reading the concluding story in a series of books about war, love, magic, and faith, I was overcome by gratitude. As I turned the last page and read the last words, I looked up to see the sun shining through the leaves in the tree above me. The winds came gently, caressing the leaves, tantalizing them with their falls and fall they did, tenderly weaving to the earth. The throes of their last dying life force, in full view for me. I was overcome by the immensity of goodness in the world, as it is inherently just so. The beauty of the leaves falling hauntingly to the ground to feed a new spring touched my soul. I looked to the west and saw the sun fall behind the branches of a tall evergreen tree. The sun spread its rays of light all around it, as it does only when half hidden. I leapt up off the bench I was sitting on and floated up to the top of the tree.
At the top of the tree, the sun lingered above, still in full force. I had climbed beyond the shade into the lingering warmth. As I sat in the tree, the wind swaying me back and forth, I felt pressed to close my eyes and pray. I have never prayed, it was profoundly unfamiliar and yet as I did, I felt only grace. I am not religious and never have been, but as I closed my eyes and felt the sun and the wind, heard the rush of the breeze, smelled the decomposing earth below, I was touched by an energy. All negativity was expelled from me and I was so full of gratitude for everything in my life, the highs and the lows, that I could have burst. I prayed to my own heart and to the energy I felt, offering surrender in return for guidance. I heard a call.
As I swung down from the tree, I closed my eyes once more and returned to the feeling of peace and warmth emanating both from within and all around me. I allowed myself to feel guided in a direction, gently continuing my surrender. I remembered when I was younger, I used to do the same thing, always pausing, walking slowly to allow myself to listen to my heart. I would trust my intuition implicitly, following it everywhere. As I write this, I feel anxious because I am writing about that which I don’t fully understand, because my identity is shifting as I let old realities melt away. And yet, I am at peace because I can feel that my heart has started to guide me once more.
As I step forward into the next phases of my life, it will be with purpose, with direction, and with heart. I know that there will be pain. I know that I will be challenged, as all are on their true paths. I know that I will feel loss and sorrow, too. But more than anything, I will feel like me, and that is all that matters. As I think on what I am called to do, on what my vocation may be, I must share that it is a mystery. That feeling of being scooped up, of being carried to a higher plane of existence is entirely misguided and misleading.
However one might speak of the feeling, whether as one’s heart whispering to them, or as God speaking truth, or as a guiding force, or intuition, the feeling is gentle. This whisper can only be heard in the peaceful moments between actions, in the space allowed for it. This calling is omnipresent, and yet transparent, unseeable. It cannot be heard unless listened for and even still, sometimes is missed. There is no one calling for me, no one vocation or path, there is no one job or mission for my life. The callings are like the quiet caresses of the wind through the leaves on a peaceful day, helping to share the beauty of life, if only we listen.
This summer, this life, the love I have felt, and the losses I have endured… The pain that I have grown through, and the knots in my bark… The warmth of the sun and laughter of children… They all are present both in reality and in the shimmering fabrics of who I am. Every experience I have journeyed through, fought for, surrendered to, avoided, and passionately engaged with, they are all me. My life is eclectic, my fabrics are swirls of colors, glistening in the sun and sparkling in the moon. My life is illegible and unreadable, it is malleable, and yet grounded. It is frightening and seeks the unknown. It is exciting and foreboding, beckoning and full of pain, of love, of joy. I cannot say where my life will lead, but I can promise that it will be mine, lived fully as me.
As I finish writing this pivotal piece, I reflect back through the last months of my life. Each moment coalescing into who I am now, who I am becoming. I have felt profound change on the horizon, unnamed until this moment. I have felt anxious about my future, knowing the stability of my past, uncomfortable with the independence of freedom. I have been strung along through my life, mostly following the guidance of others, the call of society. There are so few things that I have felt authentically proud of, fulfilled by. Things that are amazing to others are dull and colorless to me.
So much of my life has been committed to the machinations of a construct unfathomably large, the hive mind of humanity. It is nearly impossible to escape from the pervasive will of the many. It drowns out the gentle call of my heart.
This summer while in Ghana, I had more free time than perhaps ever in recent years. Much of my days were spent alone, reading in my room or writing. I escaped the doldrums of reality into worlds of fantasy, of magic, and of love. I longed for adventure and even though I was in a foreign country around the world, I looked for it in books. I don’t know if I was afraid to engage, or if I didn’t want to, or if I simply was depressed. Every day was a new challenge because I had to convince my heart to beat, I had to make myself awake. I have felt like this in the past, and especially in some of the parts of my life that others might envy. Throughout college, I have dealt with this feeling of lethargy.
Imagine for a second, if you will, that each person’s energy is like a cup of water being filled. Everyone is different, certain activities might fill one person’s cup while draining another. But every life is a cup. For the last many years, I have been living in a world where simply doing my daily tasks, drains my cup. My environment has torn a hole in the bottom of my vessel and no matter how much I put into my cup, it floods out the bottom. I don’t mean to be depressing or dismal, but I do want to be alarming. I have felt for years that there must be a better way to live life, and I have been searching for it.
In my search I have come across many truths and many ideas that could be true. One of the simplest ideas I have found and developed is the idea of one’s inside happiness and one’s environmental compatibility. Largely, happiness, fulfillment, and joy come from within. There are choices that we can all make to put gratitude before anger, courage before fear, and action before inaction. We can choose to be positive, optimistic in a world full of fear. This is an inside choice and some claim that by turning this dial, it will solve all qualms. I do not quite believe this, though. I think that one’s environmental compatibility is as important as one’s inside journey.
To be fulfilled, a person absolutely must be living their life in a way that is fit for them. Every person is different and it is nearly impossible to look to others for affirmation that an environment matches a person’s vocational necessity. Each of us must walk our own path, paths even. Each of us must listen to the gentle callings of our hearts and align our actions and environment with those callings. Even if I choose all the right things on the inside I still must escape the vacuum of inaction and stagnancy. To live in the world that I want, to align myself with the environment I want, it is likely that I have to create it, manifest it.
My journey forward is set with the intention and the true north of this idea: For my life to be as it should be, I must listen to my heart and manifest the reality that I need. There is nothing stopping me but me. I do not know where I will be guided, I do not know which oceans I will cross first or which people I will come to love. I do not know what beautiful colors will be added to the fabrics of my life. I only know that I must walk forward with the faith that if I listen to my heart, all else will fall into place. I know that I am here on this Earth to do something good, as are we all, and I intend to stride forward, courageously manifesting the world that I know can exist.
I sign this Covenant of the Magnolia Tree with myself.
1. I will always listen for the gentle guidance of my heart.
2. I will have courage in the face of the unknown.
3. I choose to believe that anything is possible and that I can manifest any new reality.
4. I will not hold myself accountable to solve all the problems of the world and will focus on being true to myself, as by doing so, the problems that I can solve will fall before me.
5. I will love compassionately, forgiving when possible, and growing with all I come into contact with.
6. I will act when I hear the call, even if I am terrified of the consequences.
7. I will never again feel ashamed of who I am.
8. I will never give up on myself or my life. I choose life in the face of death.
My future is rife with opportunity, to love and to mourn, to grown and to learn. As I set forth, I will bring with me all the experiences that have made me who I am, I am draped in the fabrics of my past. I will choose to help not hurt, to strive instead of balk. I will give of myself the best that I can, always hoping that by being me, I can treat the afflictions on humanity and on our shared home. I will not name myself that which I am not. I am a healer and an artist, I am a visionary and a philosopher, I am a wanderer and I am a writer. I choose to be me.