It’s Sunday afternoon in Nashville, and everything’s as it should be. I’m reclining in a comfortable maroon chair at one of my favorite coffee shops, taking in the melody of the current song, the murmur of voices, the gray skies where rain is hitting pavement, the green and lush of the trees.
It’s like nothing has changed.
In reality, it’s been two weeks since I returned from South Africa, and I’m still in the process of orienting myself to “life as usual”. The past days have been a blur of old memories and new—seeing old family and friends, yet forgetting which side of the road to drive on. Getting groceries at the store right down the road, yet being astounded at the fact that there are at least seven kinds of apples available year-round. Seeing the faces of my favorite kids at church this morning, yet feeling a pang of sadness at the realization that some of my other favorite kids are halfway around the world.
And everyone, everywhere asking, “How was your trip to Africa?”
Each time I’ve answered that question, I’ve never felt like I’ve done it justice. Words like “transformative”, “exhilarating”, and “awakening” are all appropriate, but they vastly undervalue each moment of the seventy days that I had the opportunity to step outside myself and into a world so unlike my own. As I’m sure most travelers can attest, there are no photos, souvenirs, stories or blog posts that will ever truly be able to capture the depth and width and breadth of a life-changing experience.
The sad thing about our own life-changing experiences is that we can never fully share them with others through any ordinary kind of medium. The happy thing about our life-changing experiences is that we can share them through how they have shaped us, by how we decide to live this day differently than the last, because of the moments and memories that have shaped us.
Although I wasn’t surprised by this, Nashville has changed very little without me. Doughnut Den is still up and running, friends have gone on and had adventures of their own, classes are starting in just a few weeks, and if I’m not careful, life can go on like nothing happened. This summer could be just another set of Facebook posts and Instagram photos.
With everything in me, I want to do this summer justice—to the incredible Lumos Foundation that paved the way for my trip, to United Through Sport, my host organization, to my fellow volunteers, and to the hundreds of beautiful children I got to share life with. I have been made better through this experience, and I want to demonstrate that every day for the rest of my life.
Yes, I was coaching soccer and teaching math and english. But I was also a student of a country that has such a vibrant and colorful history, of people who loved much by allowing me to share in a small part of their life. As time passes, I know that there will be more for me to understand and learn, but as I sit here, there are a few that stand out in particular.
First, be grateful. Everyone has seen pictures of starving children, dilapidated houses, grief and sadness and sorrow. That is not how I learned to be grateful when I was in Africa. I learned how to be grateful because I saw joy. Joy in the face of a struggling student who finally learned how to add, joy in my athlete’s faces when they scored a goal on a barren field, joy in the gift of a smile, a hug, a “well-done”—things that cost nothing to give, yet mean the world.
I didn’t learn to be grateful because I saw how much worse people had it than me—although, believe me, they did. I learned to be grateful because I saw their joy in the simple, and I wanted what they had. It’s the small things that bring extraordinary beauty to our lives. Give them another look.
Secondly, live in the moment. Something that I think we as a culture do quite often is place an extraordinary amount of our mental stamina either dwelling in the past or focusing on the future. With our eyes fixated on things that we cannot change or bring back, or peering ahead into some worrisome future or obsession with the next thing that will make us happy, we have very little time to pay attention to the now. Not to mention that even when we’re in the now, half of us are looking at a 4.7 inch screen that demands every second of our attention.
I don’t want to come to the end of my life only to realize that I never really lived any of it. When I was in Africa, being unplugged (literally, country wide power outages are a blessing in disguise) and in the moment was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I want to live every day like that. I want to drink deeply out of the well of life, to have an insatiable fascination with even the ordinary.
Lastly, re-examine your mission field. At my old church in Wisconsin, there was a sign on top of the door that always intrigued me as we left church. It read “You are now entering the mission field.” As much as I was privileged to have traveled halfway across the world to give of myself, it made me realize that there are people at home who need that just as much. There’s a huge homeless population in Nashville, there are children who are left behind in school and struggling, there are friends and family who could use the attention and encouragement that I so willingly shared with people halfway across the world. Aren’t they all my mission field?
While I would never change what I was able to do and still want to dedicate my life to international development, I want to live that experience every day. I don’t want to come back from two and a half months of living for others just to go back to living for myself. I want this idea of selfless living to shape my thoughts, my actions, my education, my career path, my present and my future.
If you have the opportunity to travel and serve, take it. The stories I have shared are just a sliver of what was truly transformative in every sense of the word. If that’s not for you right now, I’m hoping those three things—not new things, but things that have taken on new meaning in the context of my life—might encourage you if you feel like you’ve been stuck in a rut. Sometimes the biggest adventures we take are the ones that start inside ourselves.
Thank you for being part of this journey with me. Your prayers and love have meant the world. I’m grateful for you, grateful for this summer, and grateful for a world in which there’s always another adventure to be had.
Here’s to our next big adventures and the blessings that come with them.
(Want to be a part of amazing change in South Africa? Learn more about United Through Sport and support their Senior School of Excellence program here.)