AmeriCorps OP-ED DecemberIn the summer of 2008, I had the opportunity to travel throughout Central America with my friend. The reason we decided to go on the trip was because we wanted to break outside of our cultural context: we wanted to meet people whom we had never met. We wanted to hear their stories and share their experiences. As I look back on the trip, I realize our journey was an anthropological one – we wanted to know what it meant to be human; what it meant to be alive.
But as I work with these students daily, as I analyze their problems and venture to understand their needs, as I hear their past histories with there baggage, I am again haunted by The Question.
They are alive and so am I. For this very reason we are, in some ways, connected. We are, in some ways, the same. So for them, for me, what does it mean to be human?
I remember from my Central American journey a precious little girl named Brady. She lived in a garbage dump in Nicaragua. She was seven years old, and her whole life was trash: outside her house made of cardboard and tin, fires burned incessantly, smoke billowed into the sky. Flies buzzed. Dogs barked. Dirt. Odor. Trash. People.
I remember seeing her one day, Brady sitting by herself at the top of a hill. Her legs hung over the ledge, swinging in her sloppy second-hand shorts. I went up to sit by her and she seemed sullen. Together we gazed at the landscape before us: tin houses and fires rising, the smoke blackened from tires burning. Dogs crippled from the territorial nature of life in the dump, scouring for food. Children, dirty and smudged, played on heaps of trash. Adults picked through the scraps, hoping to turn a few plastics to coin. This was Brady’s home.
I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and her bouncy brown eyes narrowed. “A doctor,” she answered in Spanish. Intrigued, I asked her why, and she explained in her suave, native tongue, “To help cure all the sick children here.”
I followed her eyes as they panned the houses below, and she seemed to have in mind whom those children were.
I sat stunned by this beautiful little girl, this girl just seven years old who knew more than I about what it meant to be alive. She taught me that to be human is to love.
It’s easy to give up on the students I work with. They’re hard and tough and broken. But there are brief moments during the long days, short glimpses into the hope and potential they have. I see them laugh or hug; I catch them sharing food or being polite; I look into their eyes and notice that their humanity is the same as mine.
They too have dreams.
And behind their tough facade, their shields of apathy, I see children who are starving for love and affection. They have been hurt so much that they refuse to open themselves up again.
But they, too, have taught me what it means to be alive. It means to be vulnerable. So finally, while it is certainly not a complete definition, I believe I have begun to answer the question I started asking three years ago.
Perhaps to be human means to open yourself up to love, to be vulnerable. It means to have courage and to work hard, because following your dreams is difficult.
And perhaps it also means to love others.
To be human means to love and be loved.