Places that change us

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Places that change us

At some point in our lives we find ourselves at a place and time that leaves an impression on us, indents itself into our being and leaves us changed. Often this is connected to an event or series of events. The result is a lasting change to our lives, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

Sometimes these moments are without asking others are our choice and some of them are very difficult moments: death, job change, marriage, etc. Whether good or bad as the case may be, we have choice in our lives about how we will deal with it and what our lives become. There may be one moment in time for this, or there may be more. We don’t have a pattern to follow in our lives. We are free to make choices and from those we encounter what will ultimately be the events that influence our decisions and being as we live our lives. Our lives are often fashioned by them. If we learn from these moments we may become better, more integrated, people.

An example from my own life; the one that changed me the most, was moving to Zambia in south central Africa in 1987 at age 23 and remaining there on contract for three years with The Salvation Army (this was before becoming a Catholic). I lived the first two years in a village that had a hospital and school as well as a pharmacy and nurses school. It was a well equipped mission village but nothing could have prepared me for the events and requirements while I lived there. It was a life so unlike what I would have encountered if I had remained in my own country at that point. I was 23 years old and thought I knew pretty much everything that I needed in life. I had completed my second degree from university, was a qualified, if untried, teacher, could speak two languages and had lived in three provinces in Canada.

And then I arrived in Zambia. Those three years made me face a life contrasted with the simplified and protected life I had had in North America. I was paid the equivalent of $15 per month to pay for food, electricity and rent which was less than the local workers.

I had a variety of duties. I was not just an English teacher, but also a pharmacy worker, a baby weigher, an ambulance driver, a grave digger, funeral preacher, importer-currency exchanger-supply chain in one, driving goods for the mission from Johannesburg to Lusaka; faced a cholera epidemic and volunteered at a cholera ravaged refugee camp. I faced police interrogation as a white man in Zambia, became accustomed to rifles and pistols pointed at me at airports, road blocks and border crossings as every day occurrences. I watched the horror first hand in Mozambique of war atrocities. I lost a great deal of weight after two rounds of malaria and damaged my liver. The near daily digging of graves and burying bodies that were unclaimed who had died of cerebral malaria, cholera, HIV and any other number of diseases leaves its mark. But I also met local Zambians and people from across the globe leaving happy acquaintances and made life long friendships. I was changed.

And I am thankful every day for those three years.

Everything in my life has been divided by one point in time as either before or after Zambia. The selfish, self satisfying ways of a young man had to be thrown aside in the face of so much suffering and need. No one can volunteer in the children’s ward, hold small infants dying with HIV, or shaking hands (or what is left of hands) in our leper village and not be moved. No one can return from places like that and resume a life like before. Everything changes. The sheer waste and greed, the hyper abundance of goods, the boredom and complaining of people in the West are all so empty.

This left its mark on me. Yes, I waste, and yes I complain. But there is a limit. My mind’s eye never lets me forget. And so it should remain. These events in our lives may be for good or bad as I mentioned, but they are moments of teaching and reflection and make us who we are. It depends on how we use them, let them shape us. We can use these for good or for bad in our own way. Better always to choose the good, the path of making better what we find and where we are. Perhaps making us more in the image of God so that we learn to be a little less selfish and little more loving as we work in building the Kingdom perfecting the virtues we should exhibit daily to those around us.

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