On Nicaraguan Mother’s Day I got a message from a friend:
“Thank you for saving my life.”
I knew immediately what my friend was referring to. Many years ago, she was going through a deep depression. I was new to Nicaragua, and new to sustainable development, but I understood that our work was community-based, rather than being based on individuals. So, for example, rather than getting donors to sponsor a child to give them a school scholarship, we were working with cooperatives to provide stable jobs for parents so they could send their kids to school themselves.
After even a short time, I understood that working on systemic issues within a community context was hard work, and not nearly as sexy as saving a child on 10 cents a day. But in those early days I had taken the idea of not working on an individual level to an extreme: I thought I wasn’t supposed to have friends among those with whom we worked.
Intellectually I understood that power dynamics meant that I would always have power over those with whom I worked. I also understood that part of my job was to work constantly to give up that power.
What I didn’t understand was that I would make friends, even in the face of that power dynamic.
But when this woman – who despite my best efforts was indeed my friend – began to falter, I encouraged her to continue. I encouraged her with all my gringa optimism that comes from a lifetime of privilege and of living out my dream in the midst of what was her nightmare.
Then she stopped coming to work. I went to her house and asked where she had been. She had excuses, but she was depressed, and she couldn’t make herself get out of bed. I thought I wasn’t supposed get caught up in her life, but I knew I couldn’t let her flounder.
She said, “I’m not going to go back to work, I can’t do it.”
I said, “I’m coming to pick you up tomorrow.”
I knew if I drove her to work, that would be akin to dragging her, and then she’d never be able to go on her own. So instead I had my husband Paul drop me at her house every morning for a week. I sat on her kitchen chair with my feet resting on her dirt floor while she put ponytails into her preschooler’s hair. Once her kids had left for school, I watched the 10” black and white TV while she gave herself a bucket bath out back and combed her own gorgeous long hair.
Then we’d walk to work in the sun. I’d chatter and say silly things to make her laugh; I did everything but hold her hand. And she kept on. Eventually she quit that job and migrated out of country to work. I was never sure I had done the right thing.
Until Mother’s Day. Her message to me said, “Thanks to you, my children still have a mother. Thanks to you, my grandchildren have a grandma. Thank you.”
Now, many years later, I’ve come to realize that I won’t see justice in my lifetime. Once I understood that, I was quite frankly relieved, because it’s not up to me to finish the job. My lot is to slog on, in faith that, although my contribution is a just one grain of sand, it is one of many, many grains of sand that will break down the boulders of injustice one day.
And yet, this past Mother’s Day I learned that one time I made a difference in one person’s life that has had an effect on her whole family.
In the end, maybe the only thing that matters is that we have compassion for our fellow humans. Maybe what matters most is not being afraid to show our love for one another, not being afraid to let our lives become entwined…even though we’re scared, even though it’s bound to get messy, even though it’s not what we’re “supposed” to do. – Becca