Tag Archives: choices


On her blog, Undecided, Shannon Kelley states: “Choosing one thing means you’re killing the possibility of having the other. And when we’re raised on the idea that anything’s possible–and every option is available–we see choosing anything as settling. And, of course, it is–it’s settling for something less than everything.”

Which is true. Saying yes to one thing means saying to no to an unknown number of other things. This would not be a problem if we knew for sure what we wanted out of life. When you know what specific job, house, and friends you want it is easy to go and find them and make them yours.

But as Americans we have been told that we can have and be anything we want. So small children say they want to grow up and be soccer balls, birthday cakes, or hippopotamuses; and we laugh, say how cute, and know they will one day grow out of that belief. But these are logical decisions. They can be anything. No exclusions. We told them so. And then our young adults leave the confines of the education system and fall into depression or ADD because they can’t decide what job to focus on, what city to live in, and whether spending every day with the same group of people is worth their time.

These are worthwhile considerations. The world is a big place. There are lots of great ways to live.

I’ve been laughed at (in a kind-of, ‘oh how adorable’ sort of laugh) for wanting to do everything. I honest to God would enjoy a fulfilled, happy life as a bed and breakfast owner in Santa Fe, as a rancher in Montana, or as a shepherd in New Zealand. Those jobs would be AWESOME.

But you know, after I denied my humanity by dreaming my life away in high school, and after succumbing to anger at my humanity in college, and after the bargaining I did with the universe, and after the depression I found myself sucked into, I have no choice left but to accept. Accept the fact that we can’t do anything, be anything, have everything.

I have one life, one chance, one story. I can have a long story, yes. But only one. And while a choice to take a job, or rent a house, or even, gasp, get married means that there are other jobs, homes, or possible life endings that I cannot experience, I have to offer myself some grace and allow that possibility. As I’ve noted before, all we truly have in our lives is the opportunity to choose.

Yes, settling is a terrible word. However, living  life in the world of what-ifs and dreams is a worse fate. And keeping options open unfairly strings along all the bosses, girlfriends, landlords, boyfriends, and adventures that we can’t commit to.

You can’t have it all, but you can make a choice. And live the hell out of the choice you make.


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Going Viral

Word of mouth and recommendations from friends are by far the best way to get a message out to the public.  The question of course, is how best to get the message into the hands of those mavens or connectors. But please read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point if you are actually interested in this concept. I’m not here to talk about its usefulness or how to capitalize on it.  I’m just here to say that yes, finding these mavens and connectors is by far the best way to get your message out. Lucky for As We Forgive, unofficial teachings at the grassroots level are easier spread via word of mouth re-creations of the message and invitations to join the movement.

Every so often, an attendee (or a group of attendees) from the “As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative” healing and reconciliation trainings will feel inspired by the film and teachings.  They say that after seeing the movie, they know it is possible to work with former enemies to improve both of their welfares. And every so often these people form their own economic cooperatives.

But what is so great about these cooperatives is that other people join the cooperative to better their own lives, and in the meantime hear a message of forgiveness and repentance from the cooperative leader.

On Friday, I talked to NDUMUKOBWA Donata, a 65(ish) year-old woman who joined the cooperative in her village because she attended an informational meeting about the cooperative that inspired her to try working in a reconciliation group.  “Because I am old, I can’t do anything alone.” Having this group of neighbors that she works with means she can “rely on them for help in getting a loan, getting to the hospital, or working my own land.”

More inspiring was the president of this cooperative, NDAYAMBAJE Andrew.  He spent his teenage years in a prison, because in 1995, at the age of 15, he was convicted of participation in the genocide and sent to jail. As a youth, he was not allowed to give his testimony, so no one heard his story until the Gacaca Trials. In 2006, he was released from jail and sent to a Gacaca court. After hearing his story, the villagers decided he was in fact innocent, and he was sent back to his family. He arrived in the village to find out that his two sisters had been killed in the post-genocide violence, so it is just he and his mother now. The founder of the cooperative, who also happens to be the local village leader, encouraged Andrew to join the association. This local leader attended a training in January of 2010 and following her experiences with the film and the related teachings, she decided to unite the widows, perpetrators and others affected by the genocide living in her village. So she invites Andrew to join. And Andrew joined because he wanted to develop relationships with a variety of people. There is a variety of ages and both genders represented at the association, and he told me that he believes he can learn a lot from every member, and he knows that by working together, they will develop lasting relationships. Although Andrew was accused of murder and spent 11 years in prison, he just wants to develop relationships with all kinds of people and learn from the elderly of his village.

Without ever attending an actual As We Forgive training workshop, both Donata and Andrew are actively living out the principles of reconciliation. As they go and talk to their immediate family members and personal friends about their experiences, who knows how many more people will join the movement?

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Happy St. Patty’s!

My inner Irishman is overjoyed that this day has once again arrived.  Naturally I tried to foster the same excitement in the 55 eight and nine-year-olds that I teach. We read Green Eggs and Ham (to honor the color of course) and I briefly described Saint Patrick (he was a priest for the Irish people a long time ago…).  But I have found that my Irish tradition is just not appreciated in the middle of Africa.

Lucky me, I am not truly Irish, and my heart is young. I will get over the disappointment.

But it got me thinking about the life of an expat.

Choosing to live in a foreign country, with foreign foods and foreign customs is no walk in the park.  Generally those who do so know the risks they are taking, and in fact want to experience the newness. And loneliness.  Because living with people who don’t appreciate the same jokes, food, fashion, books… as you do is very lonely.  As much as we talk and know about the other, we will always miss out on the intimate knowledge that comes from finding enjoyment in the same things.  This type of understanding does not require talking.  A mere glance can reveal that you both know what it means and take pleasure in the meaning.  This is missing in cross-cultural relationships.

But again, the life of an expat is entirely voluntary.  Nobody is making you live where you do.

Which is why I prefer eating at the cheap little local bar and taking tea with my colleagues in the back of the kitchen, instead of joining the other white kids downtown for expensive replicas of hamburgers and hiding out from my Rwandan counterparts over break time in the library (which actually is a sacrifice. Even donated children’s books have a strong pull on me).

So while I may not be toasting my Guinness and sharing corned beef and cabbage over at the ranch, I did stop in the dimly lit, local grocery store to pick up two samosas and fresh milk for less than a dollar.  I am living on a teacher’s salary, which isn’t much anywhere in the world, and choosing to live in Rwanda.  So while I am here, I will do my best to partake in all that Rwanda has to offer, and temporarily put aside the traditions I hold close.

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building blocks of reconciliation

“I learned that Hutus and Tutsis are the same—they both have offended each other. They both need to forgive and be forgiven.”  -Anonymous male participant in AWFRI healing and reconciliation workshop, 32-years old

AWFRI hosts several workshops and seminars throughout each month aimed at teaching Rwandans basic lessons on forgiveness.  In a society still traumatized by horrors one should never experience, lessons on forgiveness are important, but must be combined with efforts to heal the individual.  AWFRI country director Benjamin Ndizeye structures his workshops on the premise that reconciliation is two-fold: “with your own heart and with others”.

Ndizeye opens every workshop by asking why forgiveness is important.  After obtaining an answer along the lines of “because we are broken”, he presses the audience for what kind of things break a heart.  Answers range from war to poverty to rejection by a girlfriend/boyfriend.  All are relevant though, and Ndizeye gives them all credibility, encouraging the reserved audience to voice their pains.

Ndizeye says the first step towards forgiveness will be to rebuild the broken heart, and this rebuilding begins by re-defining a human being.  A human, he explains, is like an avocado. “The pit is the human spirit, the flesh is the human soul, and the skin is the physical body. Like the seed of the avocado is the most important part of the fruit, your spirit is what defines you.”  The old adage that nearly every American child knows by heart: “its what on the inside that counts”, is news to the audience.

The foundational lesson concludes by coaxing the audience to list adjectives previously used to describe “Hutu”, “Tutsi”, and “Twa”.  With a full chart of words, Ndizeye tells the crowd that a human is not what he looks like or what others call him, it is the personality of a man or woman that will determine his/her actions and define his character.   He says “the problem is not the existence of ethnic divisions, but the image we construct of [these divisions].”

Reading through responses of audience members reveals the importance of basic identity discussions.  The 21-year-old man whose most important lesson learned was “healing and acceptance—acceptance of yourself and of others” connected the relationship between a healthy self-esteem and making others comfortable in your presence.  Lesson one of achieving peace: know and be comfortable with yourself.  This way you can accept others as they are.

Ndizeye’s second step in teaching forgiveness is addressing personal responsibility.  He starts by saying God forgives us after we admit to engaging in a sin, after taking responsibility.

Using me, the five-foot tall, skinny American with no money to her name in the audience, he pointed out that to take responsibility we must remember that people are not the definitions others’ give to them.  “She does not look or act American at all.  This girl is skinny and she thought of the poverty in this village so she brought her own water to drink, but she doesn’t have money to give us all.  So we must change our mind about Americans and know that they can’t fix all our problems.”  I felt honored to add to the day’s lesson, but mostly excited to hear a call to action in this aid dependent culture.

Lesson two of achieving peace: take responsibility.  The 32-year-old man who recognized that all ethnicities played a role in the pain and destruction of 17 years ago nailed this lesson on the head.

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Free Will

“And all the suffering that you’ve witnessed and the handprints on the wall, they remind you how it’s endless, how endlessly you fall. And then the answer that you’re seeking for the question that you’ve found, drives you further to confusion as you lose your sense of ground.”

Why does this drive us to confusion?  Why do we get so frustrated when we can’t find answers, or don’t understand what is happening.  After all, how many people actually do have answers; or understand the suffering; or can bear the pain day after day, year after year?

The beauty of humanity is the variety of worldviews, beliefs, and thought processes.  (Whereas this can be frustrating when trying to communicate with someone who clearly is not on your “wavelength” these differences are a truth, a scientific law if you will.)  And if we are all exercising the capability of thought, than we can present our differing views of the endless suffering and present personal attempts at answers and have enlightening discussions with one another on ways of surviving the confusion.

Basic human rights are frequently discussed in the academic and development aid world, often with words like “God-given right”.  However, the only right actually given to man by God (according to Biblical records) is the right to choose.  Initially given to choose which God you will follow (Joshua 24:15), this right boils down to the right of free will.  You have the power to decide.  Decide how you feel about a situation.  Decide how you will react to the people around you.  Decide what class to take, what program to participate in, what job to take, whom to marry, what food to eat.  You do it.  You decide.  For yourself.

This past week I attended a healing and reconciliation workshop that As We Forgive Rwanda Initiative (AWFRI) conducted in a rural neighborhood on the outskirts of Kigali.  These workshops are what define the work of AWFRI.  The two men that comprise AWFRI write up their lesson plan and then teach whoever decides to show up for the three-day workshop.  Lessons include reconstructing views on the definition of humans (humans being their personal character, which is influenced by personal history, rather than the words others use to define him or her) and accepting personal responsibility in-order to achieve forgiveness, reconciliation (with self and with others) and improvement in living conditions.

Such concepts are vital for a traumatized country to even think about healing.  A country comprised primarily of illiterate men and women who work each day to merely survive are incredibly vulnerable to the ideas and words of leaders, and particularly of foreigners.  This power is both awesome when applied to the lessons taught at the AWFRI workshops and unbelievably damaging when in the hands of emotional religious leaders (or angry local leaders—as seen by the power of radio shows in bringing about the genocide here).  Given that the Pentecostal Church is the fastest growing church in both Africa and Latin America, it is not unlikely that masses of traumatized, vulnerable people are hearing messages that attribute poverty and HIV to sacrifices made to ancient, local gods, and the necessity of paying money (offering) to the local Christian church in-order to atone for those past sacrifices made to local gods.

I am everyday convinced that the only solution to development issues, or conflict reconciliation, or improving the standards of living—anywhere in the world—is education.  Not an education that provides an understanding of English letters and basic arithmetic, but an education that encourages freethinking.  It is essential that children learn how to think for themselves, so they have the ability to decide for themselves what paths will serve their interests.

So when you come up against a suffering, a pain, a question that seems unbearable, exercise that one God-given right of yours to make a decision.  Forget whether it is right or wrong, just make the decision.  The consequence will come and then you make a subsequent decision of how to react to this new question/suffering.  Be confident in the fact that you have a logic-based education.  You learned how to think.  You are not vulnerable to whatever lesson may be thrown at you by your local pastor/leader/government official.

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