I remember returning to Chicago after volunteering in Afghanistan; my heart was completely shattered by what I had seen.
My eyes had witnessed the greatest depths of human disease and deprivation while I was working at a children’s hospital in Kabul. Every morning, countless mothers and fathers line up near the main entrance hoping to see a doctor before it’s too late.
Most of them live outside of Kabul and travel hundreds of miles in search of medical care. The lack of a home within close proximity to the hospital and inadequate financial means resulted in many families going weeks without properly showering or laundering their soiled garments.
The filthy, putrid odor permanently surrounding the families was so unbearable that I would hold my breath and race to my office on the second floor. Only after reaching a safe breathing zone would I allow myself to inhale again. As soon as I settled in and began working, I would plug my ears to avoid hearing the children crying. I would try to forget that I was working in a hospital, surrounded by sick and destitute children.
After the first day or two, I found myself not being able to make eye contact with the young, malnourished, unkempt, and often physically deformed children. The painful tremors within my heart left me feeling paralyzed and powerless. But most of all, I felt utterly useless. What good was my world-class, expensive Babson education valued at $200,000, if I could do nothing to support human life?
I wished to numb the pain, even temporarily, in order to better concentrate on the assignment. “If only I could disconnect my senses from my brain, this would be so much easier,” I thought to myself…
I hadn’t even finished the thought when suddenly my soul interrupted, “You have to keep your head in the game. You have to withstand the pain just long enough to complete the assignment. Keep going, you can do this.”
With each passing day, I felt my emotional strength diminish like the waning moon. I had to protect the flickering flame within me until I reached home and the safety of my mother’s arms.
Coming home was like seeking shelter after surviving a long, arduous battle at sea. By the time I returned, I had lost it completely. My cognitive abilities were undoubtedly questionable. Just about anything could prompt the river of tears to flow from my eyes. I spent hours every day rewinding and replaying my recent experiences as if I was searching for my lost self amidst my own story.
Reverse culture shock didn’t fully explain how disoriented I felt. I scrutinized every part of the American lifestyle. My surroundings were familiar, but the feelings they invoked were not. Inside of me, the thrashing storm continued for months.In an effort to help me readjust to life at home again, my parents urged me to look into graduate school. “Why do you want me to go to graduate school?” I asked.
“So you can earn a second degree, and secure your future. We want you to have a house of your own, upgrade your car, and have the financial means to live a comfortable life.”
Overwhelmed by their dreams for my future and my inability to respond immediately, there was nothing I could have done except allow the tears to form and flow down my face.The silence between us allowed me to gather the courage I needed. I wanted to side with logic, with my parents, with their dreams of my secure future, but I sided with my soul. After all, my soul is the only security I really have.
“Mom, Dad, I just spent four months in a country where people don’t have anything. I’ve seen a man wash his face with puddle water. Even if I had accidentally stepped in that puddle, I would have washed my foot with mineral water. But that man was washing his face with puddle water because that’s all he had.”I paused to let them try to imagine the image I couldn’t delete from my mind.”How can I forget everything I’ve seen? How can I forget the faces of all those people that have nothing? How can I go on to graduate school and spend another $100,000 just so I can have a chance at a secure future? How can I forget that I’ve been so blessed? You’ve always taught me that these blessings come with responsibility – responsibility to care for those less fortunate. The changes have already taken place in the depths of my soul. Then how can I plan a future that doesn’t include those less fortunate than us? Wouldn’t that be unjust of me? Tell me, how can I refuse my soul’s calling?”
For a long time after that, my parents thought that my journey to Afghanistan was a mistake. To them, my post-journey behavior was irrational and incomprehensible. Observing their discomfort around who I had become, I tried to share less and less of what I was feeling. I shielded my inner self, patiently waiting for the calm after the storm.
After studying systematics and systems thinking for nearly four months now, I can provide a more knowledgable explanation of the situation upon my return. In short, my experiences in Afghanistan had caused my values to change and thus, had completely shaken me up.
The madness my parents observed in my behavior (2) was indicative of the impact the deep changes were having on my individual consciousness (1). I was reevaluating my priorities and figuring out where I fit as part of an inner group (3), whether that is within a student body at a university or on a team working for an NGO in a developing country, or something entirely different. Being a strategic thinker, I am always asking myself, “What’s the goal?” and “What can I be doing to achieve that?” I was seeking a path that would align my values (1) with my vision (4) of creating a better world through a dawning of universal consciousness, compassionate stewardship, knowledge sharing, and global peace.
A misalignment creates feelings of unease, and therefore, I have created a systematic checklist using The Four Quadrants Map for me to better identify the source of it:
A. Align 1 & 2. What does my behavior say about what I value? Does my behavior truly reflect what I value and who I really am?
B. Align 1 & 3. What does my involvement with a particular group/organization say about what I value? Are my values aligned with the group’s values?
C. Align 1 & 4. What does my vision of the future say about what I value and who I really am? How does my vision translate into the values I hold inside?
D. Align 2 & 3. What does my association with a particular group say about me as an individual? What does my contribution/role within the group say about who I am?
E. Align 2 & 4. What does my behavior say about the world I hope to create? What part will I play in attaining my vision of the future? Do I hold myself responsible for realizing my personal vision?
F. Align 3 & 4. How does my involvement with a specific group or organization contribute to my vision of the future? Does the group’s vision align with my personal vision of the future? Is my involvement with a specific group helping or hurting my efforts in manifesting my desired reality?
The topics I’m studying with Elijah is allowing me to intelligently understand the past and strategically plan for the future.The principles of systematics has enabled me to see that we belong to a single intelligent system, the essence of which is interconnectedness. Thus, no event, conversation, or individual can exist in isolation. In fact, I am beginning to discover the underlying blueprint apparent in any self-renewing process, including life itself.
Systems thinking is using these systematic principles as a holistic problem solving approach, in which the knowledge of recognizable patterns serves as a basis to identify and/or rectify the interactions within a whole. It is a way to organize complexity and make sense of the world around us and within us.
Since I am able to apply the same principles to understand every thing from planetary movements to cellular respiration to brand development, I no longer have to live in parts. Instead, I can now claim all the parts as one and begin to live a truly integrated life.