I’ve been saying a lot lately that I often feel as though, since coming to Bolivia, I’ve learned more about what I can’t do and what I’m not good at than anything else. But, like I’ve said in early posts, I came to
with the prayer that I would encounter humility, that I would be humbled and made to see the experiences of each day with new eyes. I think it’s safe to say that I am on that path now, and there doesn’t seem to be an end (or opportunity to make a U-turn) in sight. But that’s fine—this is an important part of my experience, perhaps the important part of my experience, and it’s something I mean to stick to, no matter how difficult. Am I looking for pity or sympathy or an “Aw, Eric; it’ll be okay.” No. (Well, maybe!) There are lessons to learn during every step of life—some that last longer than others—and this happens to be the one I’m working on now. So, what I am looking for, what I hope to grapple with in this post as well as in the coming months, is a way of looking at these humbling experiences, to transform them from moments of embarrassment and frustration to graces through which God can move and mold my heart and mind. Bolivia
Has my Spanish improved? Yes, but that doesn’t mean I understand everything people say to me. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still countless moments each week where I am stuck, dumbfounded, repeating “
?” or “Qué?” while the other person shakes their head and tries to choose words I might understand. That doesn’t mean that the kids at Barrio can’t still snicker and laugh at me when I miss a joke or an insult or when they ask me to translate dirty words that I don’t know in Spanish to English. That doesn’t mean that my community-mates don’t at times simply give up trying to explain something to me because they themselves grow frustrated with my slow improvement. Como
I’m no star athlete, yet, that’s expected of me too. I guess I have a physique that says to the boys I encounter: “He’d be a great addition to the team; get him to play.” Plus I’m a guy, and all guys are naturally good at soccer and basketball and any other sport, right? All guys love to play sports; in fact, any moment that can be used for running around with a ball, should be, if you’re a guy, right? (It wouldn’t be hard to insert an observation or two on gender studies here, although I think you get my point.) And so, when it turns out I’m not so good or I don’t want to play, the boys (and occasionally girls) are horribly confused and disappointed—but you’re a guy, you’re tall, you’re American; why don’t you want to play? Why aren’t you any good? You do play sports, don’t you? I let down the kids; I let down myself.
And what about those rather average moments of every day life, some tinted by cross-cultural exchange, some mirroring ordinary happenings from the
? For example, how many times did I show up at Barrio and Bismark—one of the educatores—tried to find something I’d be good at. “You can help paint this mural,” he said, and then I did a less-than extraordinary job painting the soccer player’s face. “You can cut out these letters for a poster,” he said, and then he had to correct me on what size letters he meant. “You can help in the kitchen,” he said, and then proceeded to catch me as I was walking in the wrong direction and nearly held my hand as he showed me how to turn the meat over on the grill. “Help me change the lock on the broken door”—no, this screw; no, do it this way….no, no, no. And, as it turns out, I’m not that good at chess either. “Want to play chess, Eric?” Francisco, one of the Barrio boys, asked me. After a bit of trying to decipher the word for chess, I figured, I know the game; let’s do it. Embarrassed three times, with ten boys watching. U.S.
What am I good at? I ask myself often. What was it I used to be so successful at? Whatever it was, was it important? Was it a real thing? Because here in
, my skills and talents have a hard time manifesting themselves. Talent seems so often to be something that can be easily seen here—you’re good at fútbol or dancing or you can play an instrument, things people can see. “What are you good at?” kids have asked me, and what am I supposed to say? I’m good at reading and writing? I can lead conversation in community? I can discuss theology? I’m good at thinking through problems? How would those things sound to a 12-year-old Bolivian boy? And so instead, I try to hold onto those things I know I’m good at, keep them in mind to provide a bit of affirmation when I’m being embarrassed by Bolivia . Bolivia
And yet, even those things I think I’m good at don’t quite translate in
. Karina asked me to help her design and then proofread and offer suggestions for a questionnaire she’s going to use in her research. Normally, I would have little problem with such a task; in fact, I’d enjoy it. But my writing in Spanish is far, FAR from perfect, and my ability to offer suggestions on someone else’s writing is limited at best. And to think, not so many months ago I worked in a center where that’s exactly what I did: helped others improve and think through their writing. But here, I can’t do that; I have to allow myself to be humbled and face the fact that even that skill—my writing, my love of words and sentences—can’t be used here. Bolivia
And what about those conversations I love to have? How many times have I tried to guide people into thinking and talking about those “deeper” realities of life? And yet, can I do that here? At Campo Bosco, we had small groups where we were asked to talk about our lives, our hopes, our relationships with God—things I love to discuss and hear about. And yet, I could hardly find the words to accurately describe myself, let alone my prayer life. I had to be called on by the group leader to give my thoughts when I’d normally be one of the first to volunteer. And I remember thinking: “Even this has been taken from me.”
It seems as though coming to
has stripped me of nearly everything I am, as though I’ve lost those things I’m good at and am forced to build from the ground up. I feel like a child, in some regards, which can be good and bad—I’m justified in asking a lot of questions at least. And I’m forced to come face to face with who I am at the core—though I won’t pretend that I’ve finished that task; perhaps I’ve hardly started. But I’ve begun to think about those character traits, those frustrations, those little quirks of mine that exist not just as a result of my struggles here in Bolivia but that are actual parts of who I am—for example, at Campo Bosco I had to often remind myself that I take a long time to feel comfortable and myself when I’m in a large group of people; I don’t usually jump right into conversation when I’m with a bunch of teenage boys—these aren’t results of my language barriers; these are facts of my person that I have to face in English or in Spanish. And so, while I feel stripped of everything that makes me an ‘impressive’ individual, that makes me feel confident and myself, I am also still me at the core. I have myself to give—my broken self, as Henri Nouwen writes in a book I’ve just started reading; and isn’t it our ‘broken selves’ that we have to give to others, isn’t that all we really can give or all that is really expected? Everyone feels broken, is broken, has cracks and scars and weaknesses, and it is in and through our brokenness that we can enter into solidarity, across culture, time, space, whatever. Is it that brokenness that holds us together as human? Bolivia
And so my prayer at Campo Bosco centered on this humility, on these feelings of helplessness and self-stripping, and I found myself wondering if I was being given an opportunity to glimpse a unique aspect of Christ’s mission. Didn’t God empty Godself of what it meant to be God in order to become human? Didn’t God give up everything that made God ‘impressive’ to become a weak, broken, ordinary human being? Didn’t Jesus have to build ‘from the ground up’ in discovering who he was and could be as a human being? He didn’t enter the world with a bang, working miracles and moving mountains; rather, he entered the world in one of the most humble ways possible: stripped of everything he was; forced to seek out and build what he would become.
Isn’t that what we’re called to each time we approach the Eucharist, whether at mass or adoration or whenever? We come forward to meet Jesus in a great sacrament of humility: the Eucharist is that real presence, that real self-emptying of God to become human and an invitation to us to empty ourselves of “me, me, me” to come into communion with both God’s will and the realities of each and every person in the human family, past, present, and future, united in the Eucharistic sacrifice, that sacramental reality of God’s moving grace within the fabric of creation. Perhaps what I am experiencing now—this ‘forced’ stripping of self—is what I should always seek in prayer, and the Eucharist stands as a reality of what I should want to become. Here, maybe, is that ‘Daily Bread’ in a much grander form, much more literal form. Here, too, is that foundation upon which I should be building myself, seeking those ‘real’ skills and talents, offering my brokenness to others.
Fine; all well and good. Have I learned my lesson, then? Hardly. I caught myself just the other night while working with Karina trying to exercise my own pride and foolishness. Karina has saintly patience; I don’t know how she puts up with me (my usual annoying self in English) and my inabilities with the language we work in. Often, I don’t understand a part of the project or some element of my task, and Karina diligently attempts to explain to me what I’m doing and how it contributes to the larger picture. She even offers me insights into the research method and project formations—things I should be more than grateful to receive from someone so well-versed. And yet, I often shun her help and advice, saying something to the effect of, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it; I don’t need to know all this extra info—this is your project, not mine.” Humble, huh? Not at all. But, room for improvement, yes.
Another tricky example: I was at Barrio the other night and, to my great discomfort, it was a night to play sports. “Do you want to play basketball or soccer, Eric?” Neither, was my response, but I couldn’t say that. “Basketball,” I tried, thinking perhaps my height would make a difference. It might have, if we hadn’t played in the dark. Instead, I missed passes, got hit in the face, and quickly became exhausted—I literally couldn’t see anything in the pitch black! But more importantly, here I was embarrassing myself at a sport I never pretended to like to play. Is that something I need to keep doing? Is that what humility calls me to, to continue to do something I dislike, that frustrates me and brings me down, that causes me to lose respect in the eyes of the kids I serve? I’ve tried it, right? It’s not like I turned it all down outright; isn’t that enough? Or am I required to do more? Where does humility come into play here? What is demanded of me?
I don’t have answers. I probably don’t have all the questions, either. But I do have this: my prayer this morning was born out of frustration; I’m often a little anxious on the weekends when there’s little to do. Many people have left me comments that highlight that seeming lack of organization and order in my schedule—it’s very true; there isn’t much order and there’s hardly a schedule. And there’s a good chance it’ll all change at the end of November when the kids go on ‘summer’ vacation. Such disorder is hardly my preferred lifestyle, and I get very anxious when there are large gaps of free time or when I feel like I haven’t done any real ‘service’ in the day. Yesterday I submitted my application for my Bolivian visa (FINALLY), hung out with some Salesian Lay Missioners, and had an awesome BBQ with my community—all great stuff, but what ‘service’ did I do? And yet, my prayer this morning reminded me of something I have often told other people: service doesn’t just mean holding a hammer in one hand and an orphan in the other; service goes deeper than that. An easy reality to accept, especially when I so want to end each day feeling as though I’ve done something, closing my eyes with a sense of satisfaction? Not at all. But I needed to be reminded of this reality anyway. I needed to be confronted by my pride, my desire to have what I want done, what I think is good and necessary and appropriate, shattered and cast aside. I needed to be reminded that God is at work in the day, in each moment, providing those graces and instances of ‘Daily Bread’—and, most importantly, that God has already proven this fact to me over and over again. But, I need to relinquish my own expectations and open myself to God’s will, God’s plan, God’s project. Not an easy task at all, but a humbling one.
So, does any of this come easily? No. Does any of this mean I’m ready to just open myself up and let go? No. Do I still face disappointment and anxiety that I’m not doing enough, that I’m on the wrong track or have gone in the wrong direction? Yes. But who is to say that a conversation I had yesterday during the visa process or simply my presence at the grill fanning the flames last night wasn’t ‘service’? Maybe it was. Not what I expected, but what I expect might not be important. Perhaps I need to allow myself to be stripped of expectations as well.
Perhaps it is only when I have emptied myself completely that I can partake most fully in these sacraments of humility that I encounter each day.