Origins - Part II 

Chantilly, France

The town I grew up in was founded in the mid 19th century by immigrants from Europe led by a church minister. From its beginnings it was, and has remained over the years, a highly religious community. My parents were quite active in their local church, and throughout my upbringing, I attended the church services, Sunday school, sang and played bells in the youth choir and participated in various other social activities organized around the Church. The Church played a major role in my early life.

Like many religious denominations, the church I attended sponsored missions in various parts of the world. Once in a while, the missionaries would return to the U.S. to share the stories of their activities. My parents knew many of them and I knew many of them also through their children with whom I had grown up.

At some point, I began to be fascinated by the stories the missionaries would tell. It seemed like such a meaningful existance, to be helping others in a foreign land who were disadvantaged. It resonated with the lessons of altruism I had been taught and the stories I had read in the Bible. Later in life, as I drifted away from religious orthodoxy, the fascination would continue based on more secular and humanistic grounds.

Studying conflict resolution in Jerusalem was my first real foray in this direction. Looking back, I believe that I chose this program over other foreign study programs because of the sense of meaning I felt it would bring to my life. It seemed more adventurous and daring as well. I needed to test my boundaries.

In Jerusalem, there was much to discover that was exotic and challenging and thought provoking. I was delighted to discover that living in such a place suited me. It was stimulating and envigorating. Yet as with all study programs, the result remained academic and when it was over, I felt there was more that I needed to achieve, while at the same time, unsure of how, exactly, to reach what I could consider the next step.

{Great Lakes Jerusalem Program (Me, second row, center wearing the sweater)}

In returning to the U.S. I embarked upon a number of adventures which allowed me to continue my self discovery. I worked for a summer camp in far off Colorado, for a government agency in even farther off Oregon protecting endangered species, even returning to New Mexico for a summer to help protect threatened natural environments. I was thrilled by my new found independence. But I was still faced with what I would do upon graduating from University. Obtaining a traditional job in my field of specialization did not seem to promise the same kind of stimulation and meaningful existence I had become accustomed to in my travels. And I knew that my previous experiences had all been intermediate steps, not destinations in themselves.

I ended up turning to the government as a way to explore a career in doing humanitarian work abroad. The international aspect was a given, working domestically was of no interest to me. During my University career I had met others who had volunteered with the government in overseas humanitarian projects and admired their apparent intrepidness and aura of cool worldliness in the way they would tell the story of their experiences as activists providing assistance to developing countries. As I imagined myself following in their footsteps I got a good feeling about the idea of taking the skills I had learned in University and applying them to the direct benefit of countries less fortunate than my own. It seemed somehow glorious.

And so it was that in the summer of 1988, I found myself in Cameroon trying as hard as I knew how, (perhaps too hard), to teach children a subject which had frustrated me in University in a town far away from any kind of support network. It had all started so well. The training, which was notorious for ruthlessly weeding out the unfit, I adored. Surrounded by local intellectuals and like minded compatriots, I thrived in my new environment. The accommodation was Spartan, the food at times barely tolerable, the roads muddy or dusty according to the weather, and yet I reveled in the adventure and discovery of this new environment, the feeling of personal achievement, and the fellowship of the Cameroonians who I met. It was only when I left the protective community of this rather elite group of people that I started to feel isolated, alienated, overwhelmed, and devoid of the means, opportunity and strength to pull myself together. In retrospect I can only identify a single mistake that I made, which was to voluntarily give up teaching a subject which well suited me to teach one for which there was a great need, but which in the end exhausted me. It is difficult to say if things would have worked out differently if I had refused to make such a sacrifice. I had high expectations of myself, which were perhaps, and also in retrospect, too demanding.

{Me and friends in Foumban, Cameroon}

In the end, I had to abandon this endeavor which had become so near and dear to my heart and return to my country much to my great disappointment and with personal feelings of humiliation. I had lost all sense of direction and suffered a great deal in terms of my personal opinion of myself and my abilities and it took me several years before I would regain a sense of direction. In the meantime, I struggled to get over the idea that performing humanitarian work in a foreign country was not the right choice for me at that time of my life. I flirted with the idea of working for the Church but this too ended in disillusionment and disappointment which would seriously call into question for me the competence of those working for the Church and more or less put an end to any consideration of the Church as a vehicle for my aspirations.

I think that discovering one's limitations always has to be a difficult experience. It's disappointing to be sure. It calls into question one's understanding of who one is, one's capacities, one's purpose in life, and one's metaphysics. I suppose that one can only hope that the passage to the next chapter occurs as rapidly as possible. In my case it lingered rather longer than I would have hoped, a matter of years rather than months. But eventually it would occur, and not, I must say, without the help of some good friends who helped me along the way to nurse my wounds.

(To be continued)

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