The universe sent me a sign, or maybe it was just my body ‘cause it’s smart that way. It stuck a metaphorical knife in my back right between my spine and my shoulder blade. It hurt like nothing I had ever experienced before (and I’ve tried the bikini wax).
I went to see the typical 70’s New York hippy that lives in my building. She is a massage therapist. Or is she? She greets you with fermented beet juice and her 5 or 6 domesticated animals follow you up to her fourth flour bazaar of an apartment in Bella Vista, Panama. She started chuckling when she placed her hands on my agonizing back: “ Oh sweetie, bless your heart”. She giggled for what seemed like the 90 most unnecessarily painful minutes of my life.
It got worst the next day, so I thought I’d try something more serious.
After eight months of living and working at Kalu Yala, I found myself on my back, a needle in my forehead and a few in my wrists, trying to relax as the Chinese medicine man lectured me on my unhealthy amounts of stress.
Pfff. Impossible. I’m a young and healthy 26-year-old living an Instagram-worthy life in the beautiful Panama jungle, working for a company I truly believe in and bathing in the rio (ahem, that’s Spanish for river) with like-minded people.
I’m not stressed, you’re stressed.
He told me I had to breathe more. He told me I had to take care of myself. I don’t have time to take care of myself, I’m changing the world.
My mother is a meditation teacher, my father raised me Buddhist. I’ve done a few condensed versions of a yoga session in the past few months. I walk a lot. I sleep well. I don’t have many symptoms of stress. My jaw is tight and I never breathe deeply but Trump got elected and the planet is dying, so who cares about my health.
Stress is sneaky that way. It forced me to take a deeper look at the life I chose for myself, and the potential stress factors are plentiful.
Maybe it’s the fact that I have to shake my boots every morning to dislodge scorpions or tarantulas that want to bite me.
Maybe it’s because there are no walls anywhere and I can never really change without someone, somewhere seeing my nipple.
Maybe it’s because however grand and majestic the jungle is, it makes even the most tree-hugging nature-lover feel claustrophobic at times.
Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t breathe the first few seconds I step into the cold cold shower and I haven’t experienced warm water on my skin in months.
Maybe it’s because rice and beans. Everyday.
Maybe it’s because my pillow smells of mold or because I found a few bugs in my tent yesterday.
Maybe it’s because it rains every day like the lord decided to end the world by way of water.
Maybe it’s because I have to choose between being a celibate jungle nun for a year or sneaking around trying to have sex with the farmer in the dead of night, by the dirty deserted haunted house or on the sandy beach full of flies up my dress.
Maybe it’s because I have to drink 3 gallons of water a day or I’ll faint.
Maybe it’s because sometimes I wonder if what we are doing will actually work.
Maybe it’s because this job requires me to be comfortable with ambiguity.
Maybe it’s because I have to live with my boss’s daily emotional upheavals.
Or maybe it’s because I feel like having an impact is more important than my well-being.
I realized that the kind of life I live, full of self-imposed challenges, is a life of constant mental and emotional strain. I take it on because it satisfies my feeling of contribution to the betterment of humankind.
When adults would ask me: “What do you want to be when you grow up”, whatever that meant, I always said something like “I want to change the world” or “I want to make people happy”. I always found this to sound quite self-involved, as if to say: I WILL NOT LEAVE THIS EARTH AND NOT BE REMEMBERED.
I don’t want a statue of me in a ridiculous pose on a touristy road, I don’t want a biography or a movie of my life, I don’t want to be on the cover of a magazine or be compared to Mother Teresa. I just need to feel like I participated in constructing the world I live in. Is that selfish of me? Or am I kidding myself?
I work in a place where 150 impact-hungry 18 to 35 year olds come to fulfill their thirst for changing the world, or rather changing themselves through their attempt to change the world. The need for purpose is criticized as millennial flock to developing countries to hold a brown kid’s hand and are said to be entitled, lazy and chronically dissatisfied with the world. The need for purpose and the need to feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself is unarguably rooted in a fear of death, a need for legacy, a desire for recognition. But it comes from a place of self-sacrifice.
I often wonder if feeling like I have purpose is what will make me happy. Or if I should just quit trying and produce weird art all day with my only concern being my own daily enjoyment. The sticker on the bathroom mirror at yet another coffee shop around the corner says: ‘Do more of what makes you happy!’ Is anyone actually truly happy pushing all of their boundaries trying to have an impact on the world? Does “having an impact” require neglecting your well-being or is it possible to be at your best and in doing so, influence others to do the same? They say: “Be the difference you want to see in the world”, but what if being it isn’t enough? What about those who want to do it at their own expense? All those who made peace with the idea of living a solitary, strenuous and disconnected life in service of a greater good that might never even ensue.
I work with people every day who gave up luxuries they once knew to contribute to creating a world they may never live in. A world that might never exist. Is it a selfish attempt at satisfying their desire to help others? The people I work with don’t see it as a choice. They feel they must do what they do because it’s who they are and doing good in the world affirms that. This is admirable. But these same do-gooders might not take the time to heal their wounds or eat right. Can we put ourselves and others first?
My pursuit is that of a healthy altruism which gracefully intertwines with my personal well-being. These are the people I admire. These are the ones I believe will truly have an impact on the world. Whatever that means.