Thinking About Borders

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 08.22.39Today’s post comes from Anya Zakhour, a Thinking Beyond Borders fellow from San Francisco, CA currently volunteering in South Africa. Follow her gap-year blog for more thoughtful reflections on engaging abroad with curiosity and compassion.

Up until now it’s been very windy. I’m not talking small-time “open your mouth, eat some hair” type of wind. I’m talking about the type of wind that will make a stationary soccer ball roll up a grassy hill. It has a mind of its own and it really doesn’t seem to notice or care about you. Though it may look calm when you peek outside your window, you can be sure that the second you lock the front door behind you, you will be greeted with a gust full of dust to the face. The only thing you know is that there is very little you can do about it.

This has been my experience with poverty and pretty much everything else since I began living in South Africa.

Life here in the communities is like being outside continuously exposed to the wind. You can try to cover yourself with whatever you can get your hands on and while this may make you feel more secure in the moment, every time you look out around and see the dust blowing about in the air, you are reminded of how fragile and exposed you really are. Everywhere you look you see people’s lives being swept away by the wind with no hesitance or remorse. No matter how many precautions you take or how many layers you pile on, it could all vanish in an instant. You are left looking to the sky and waiting for the day that there will be sun.

To have the ability to affect change is to have power. We as humans do not have the power to control the weather. Our strength is in our incredible capacity to adapt to it.

I have been struggling lately with feeling powerless and insignificance in the face of a vast unknown. I’ve always believed that in order to solve a problem you have to fully understand how all the pieces connect. I thought that if I searched hard enough eventually I could understand how the world operates. But the deeper I delve into questions like “How can I understand myself?” and “How can I understand the world?”, the farther away I feel from being certain about anything. I think it might have less to do with my capacity to understand, and more to do with reality’s capacity to be understood.

Our culture generally makes you feel bad about not having the answers. It makes you feel like you ‘need’ to just pick your own answers, because if you can’t speak with conviction about what you know, then you must not be smart or have anything relevant to say. Your value, then, is tied to your opinions, and identity becomes defined by what you believe. Once you’ve committed any discussion analyzing it becomes a personal attack. It becomes a battle that breaks you down from the inside out and leaves everyone exposed.

Living with this perpetual uncertainty is uncomfortable. It’s frustrating to constantly be in a state of cognitive dissonance, floundering about in eternal flux, unable to rest permanently on solid ground. On some level I think it would be nice if I could settle with simple answers, and live in a world where things are definite and explainable: a world that makes sense, one that I can get my head around. But I can’t escape the feeling that a world like that would be an illusion, a shallow representation of an infinitely vast reality. This feeling absolutely terrifies me.

I am being blown about by the wind, forced to come to terms with my fragility, my vulnerability, my limits, and my humanity. No matter how hard I try I cannot calm the winds of conflict. I cannot take the sun with my hands and force it to shine. But that doesn’t mean I am powerless. For although I may be insignificant to the world, I am not insignificant to people.

The strength of humanity as a species is not in the individual’s ability to triumph over nature, but in the collective’s ability to adapt to it. Maybe instead of focusing on the answers so I can lead others to them, my job is to figure out how to be and inspire others to be more fully human.

Being human is a constant process of learning and change. We cannot change the fact that we develop, we can affect how we develop. Yet we cannot do this alone nor individually. The power we have in our relationships with each other is what makes us uniquely human. Thus, just as our survival depends on the coordination of our combined strength, it also depends on the coordination of our combined minds. If we are able to connect to our humanity, to become more human, then together, as equals, we can brave the wind.

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