As another gorgeous autumn weekend unfolded a week ago, I took a moment mentally to note a milestone. In the midst of an Augsburg College Board of Regents meeting, it dawned on me that I had reached a 5-year milestone in my work with Winds of Peace Foundation. I took my early retirement from Foldcraft Co. on September 30, 2005 and essentially commenced my work with the Foundation the next day. Founder Harold Nielsen was in the hospital with pneumonia at the time, and inquired whether I’d consider stepping into the Foundation world temporarily until he recovered. Within a very short time, I recognized that the nature of the work was, in fact, a calling. During a visit with Harold in the hospital, he offered me the opportunity to join the Foundation’s work, an opportunity that has become one of the most important events of my life. And suddenly, five years have passed by.
Last Saturday evening, I took some time to reflect on these past years and considered whether the new experiences have changed me in any ways. Knowing full well that they had, I was nonetheless a bit surprised when I inventoried the ways.
*Gratitude- I’ve never been one to take people or things for granted, but the experience of working with very poor people has clarified the incredible and unwarranted good fortunes of my life in ways that I would never otherwise have experienced. There is nothing particularly special or deserving about those of us who have all they need in life. To the contrary, when it comes to deserving, one could make a compelling case on behalf of those who have struggled through life with far less than they need. I have been just plain blessed. I cannot answer as to why. But I have gained a deeper gratitude in recognition.
*Compassion- Shortly before she passed away earlier this year, my Mother said to me, “You always feel for other people.” It was a nice thing for her to say (moms always say the nicest things about their own kids, right?) and I suppose that generally I agreed with her observation. But developing a true feeling for the reality of those in need requires something far more than an innate sense of injustice or inequity. To truly feel, to know the truth of those realities requires being among those for whom serious need is a way of life. To see pictures of hunger is sad and sobering. But to actually know individuals who are hungry every day is devastating and unshakable.
*More Tolerance- I have recognized with greater clarity how few answers I have about life and all of its complexities. The surety which I felt as a younger man has given way to many more shades of gray, and on most of the issues over which we debate these days. I have discovered that the problems are far more complex than I ever knew, and that the solutions are neither simple nor single-faceted. In fact, my tolerance stems from the recognition that, indeed, each of us represents a piece of every solution. I need those others, and so do we all.
*Less Tolerance- The words and inaction of political, social and business “leaders” have created a great and uncomfortable skepticism in me. it’s difficult for an optimist to struggle with skepticism. But I feel great impatience with the self-serving nature of those who are elected or otherwise chosen to serve as stewards for the common good but who exemplify only a drive to craft their own welfare. Their behaviors represent a double theft: a theft of whatever material wealth they have commandeered and a theft of the public trust and welfare. The examples they have set will continue to plague us for years to come.
*Hopefulness- In the shadows of enormous inequality, injustice and injury, there are the people of Nicaragua. And they continue to pick themselves up after each blow, whether it comes from natural disaster, political disaster, economic disaster or, in some cases, self-imposed disaster. To witness such buoyancy and persistence is to experience the sense of hope that resides within us all, even when we cannot feel it. Nicaraguans have the propensity to rekindle hope in those of us fortunate enough to know them, from the sheer resilience of their spirit.
*Generosity- Like most, I like to think of myself as being a generous person. My parents taught me at an early age that generosity was a major component of character and thus, support for those less fortunate than me has always been a priority. “Comfortably” so. But my work among some very poor people in Nicaragua has convinced me that “comfortable generosity” isn’t enough, that what I am called to share of myself is something more than comfort and, in any event, more than money itself. I have learned what it is to be generous with self, with presence, with compassion. I’ll likely never be good enough at this. At the end of the day, generosity is a relative thing, ultimately to be measured only by one’s self. But being in Nicaragua has provided a very different standard for me to think about.
There are undoubtedly other changes in me, as well, perhaps changes that I do not see in myself or that I am unconsciously reluctant to recognize. But especially given the relative shortness of my time with Winds of Peace, I find that the experience has shaped me at a time in life when change is more often to be avoided, something about old dogs and new tricks. It has been a discovered treasure in my life that bears sharing with others on this wordly journey. Whatever the norm or the expectation may be, five years have come and gone like the passing of a summer rain, but with the refreshment of an early autumn breeze….