Tag Archives: Sharing

Standing Tall, Feeling Small

 

The temperatures are reaching the mid- to upper nineties again this week, feeling very Nicaragua-like much of the time.  But this is the kind of weather we dream about all winter long and I am careful not to complain about the weather.  Just as in the cold months, I try to ignore the extremes and go about my usual daily routines.  That includes a noontime workout, and today’s regimen called for a 5 mile run.  Properly hydrated and sun-protected, I ran a route that takes me along a cold trout stream, into a forest that winds its way up one of the high limestone bluffs for which Decorah is famous.  It’s an exhilarating trail, one of almost incomparable beauty, cool on a hot day and protected from the searing danger of a July sun.

Whenever I reach the summit of the bluff, I pause for a moment of reflection.  I tell myself that it’s because the vista overlooking the trout stream and forest below is so stunning; the reality might just as easily have to do with the fact that I need a breather by the time I hit the top.  Whatever the impetus, I love the quiet moment up there,  surrounded by Nature that is breathtaking (perhaps the real reason for my gasping?), where I am absolutely alone with my thoughts, and devoid of any distractions or needs to be anything but myself.  It usually includes a feeling of gratitude and self-satisfaction, that I have been healthy and motivated enough to run to this spot on even the hottest of days; I admit to an unwarranted feeling of pride.  That’s the way I felt today on top, looking down into the valley, grateful for the chance to do this, pleased at myself for doing it, feeling accomplished and strong and standing tall up there.

Strangely, there’s another feeling that sweeps over me in such moments.  About the time I’m feeling that strong, invincible sensation of accomplishment and human joy, I am struck with the realization that, of course, such moments do not present themselves to everyone.  There are perhaps many residents of my own community  who will never reach the summit of this place, let alone less fortunate people anywhere in the world who do not have the luxury of practicing wellness, maintaining fitness, cultivating strength and a sense of achievement.  And quickly I am subdued and humbled for my feelings of self-importance.  I cannot share such experiences with others, I do not have the power to  take away the injustices, limitations and oppressions which prevent the ascension of so many, I cannot even explain these vast differences in life’s opportunities and blessings.

And it makes me feel very small, no matter where I might stand, no matter what obstacles I may have overcome to stand there.  I do not presume  to believe that my acquaintances in Nicaragua would harbor the slightest interest in climbing to the top of Twin Springs park; indeed, there are places in Nicaragua which are as spectacular as any sites in the world.  It’s the metaphor of my ascent which picks at my consciousness and steals the mantle of self-fulfillment from my shoulders.

So, here there is no call to action, no prodding to do anything other than recognize the inequity of it all, the imbalance which is an omnipresent fact of our lives.  We are worthy of the joys of achievement from our endeavors, but we also deserve an acute awareness of where all of that fits into the world at-large. Standing tall is a good feeling to have, but it can also cast a shadow, one to make me small….

Seeing A Future

Our work in Nicaragua has been made up of wins and losses over the years, just like in any enterprise.  I cheer the groups which seem to embrace the principles of transparency and participation and  holistic well-being and I mourn the groups that at first step up to that difficult model and then back away, whether through habit or urgency or seduction.  It’s hard for me to remember that the organizations with whom we work are not U.S. businesses, and that I can’t really look at them through the same lens that I might use to consider the workings of a company here.  But there is one need that seems to apply to developing organizations no matter what structure they may have and wherever they may be located.  That essential component is the ability to envision a future.

It’s important for you to note that I did not say the future, but a future.  The future implies whatever is destined to be, something beyond both our control and our ability to foresee.  A future suggests a point in time to come which is subject to our influence if not complete control.  An organization is subject to all of the laws of Nature which will shape the future, but it maintains a hold on many of the cultural, social and relationship elements of a future.  Good-to-great organizations around the world have come to recognize and embrace that difference.  A future is made up of elements beyond our control, but many are of our own making.

That truth applies equally to any of the four priority initiatives undertaken by Winds of Peace.  In order for women of Nicaragua to achieve an equal status with equal rights, they must first be able to envision a future where gender issues are not a hindrance to personal development, but rather an awareness of the enormous untapped resources within the country.  If Indigenous communities seek to regain their ancient cultural and property rights as the original inhabitants of their lands, they must first be able to envision a future where they are willing to truly speak from the ancestral voice, as one, in bridging past and future generations within the framework of cultural stewardship.  If the rural agricultural poor ever escape from the factors which isolate and oppress them, it may be a result of their ability to recognize their collaborative strengths and a future view of broad engagement and participation from peasants who are able to separate short-term relief from long-term transformation.  In order for education to lead Nicaragua into a future instead of the future, leaders throughout the country will need to see education not as a problem with few solutions, but as the solution to a great many problems facing the entire nation.  Those changes in perspective alone reshape a future in ways beyond measure.

But in each case, the change comes first from envisioning a future that is wanted and then from committing to that vision.  The visioning is more than unstructured dreaming; it consists of objective components that are refined to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.  Only if the resulting vision is compelling enough, will it have the strength to garner the commitment from others that will be required, because that dedication forms the essential energy needed to swim against a tide of status quo.  Creating a future is neither automatic nor easy, but few worthwhile outcomes  ever are.  Just ask the members of countless enterprises that go out of business every year.

Whenever faced with a faltering initiative in Nicaragua, I ask myself whether there was a future in mind at its inception, or whether the request for partnership was born of short-term, immediate need.  I wonder whether an initial vision became somehow corrupted by circumstance or self.  It’s often difficult to discern where a group is in its thinking, and some folks have become very accomplished at telling a compelling story without a compelling vision behind it.  Our evaluations will never be perfect.  But the ones who stand to lose the most are not the members of Winds of Peace or the countless other funders who work in Nicaragua.  It’s the organizations themselves, and the individuals within, who run the risk of having to face the future, whatever unknowns that may bring….

 

 

The Secret to a Happy Life

It seems as though most of us spend much of our lives looking for some special key to happiness.  In the choices we make about education, spouses/partners,  career, where we live, what we buy, how we recreate, there is a relentless search for experiences that will somehow validate and reward us to peace and contentment.  It’s the universal search, really, and there is an entire industry that has been built around helping us to identify the keys and unlock the doors.  Man’s search for meaning and happiness is as much a part of our makeup as DNA.

But like many puzzles that we encounter in life, the answers may be a lot less complex than we make them out to be.  Sometimes the solutions are right in front of us and we simply need someone or something to lift the veil which prevents us from seeing clearly.  The lyrics from a song by The Eagles have always underscored this truth for me:

Just remember this my girl when you look up in the sky, You can see the stars and still not see the light.

and

So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains, That we never even know we have the key.                 (“Already Gone” by The Eagles)

So when I received a translation of comments made by Father Fernando Cardenal, I was confronted again with this puzzling reality.  Father Cardenal is a revered figure by nearly all who know him, and each time that I have been privileged to hear or read his words, I have been moved to both reflection and action.  (I have referenced and quoted him here previously.)  In these newest comments, he addressed his words to “the youth of North America,” a frequent audience of his in Nicaragua whenever they travel there.  Within his words, I was reminded once again about a universal truth which remains agonizingly difficult for most of us to embrace.  It conflicts with the pursuits of our daily lives, it is counter-intuitive to our inclination toward self-protection, and it carries an irony almost too frustrating to contemplate.  The truth that Father Cardenal presents so gently yet profoundly is that what we seek for meaning and fulfillment- happiness-  in our lives is absolutely, positively within our reach.  It is found in acts of giving.

I offer Father Cardenal’s words here for your own consideration and reflection.  Like any words spoken or written, they can be absorbed or rejected, embraced or ignored.  But they are offered here from a man who, over eight decades of life, has experienced as many dimensions of life as possible by one man.  Sometimes the sheer weight of experience and wisdom commands our attention, despite whatever message we may prefer hearing:

Message to  the young people of North American

 For 30 years I have been giving talks to young university students here in Nicaragua and in the United States. Because of that, I know you very well, but above all I have a lot of love for you, and that is why I want you to be very happy.

 Reality teaches us that in your youth you freely choose to  lead either a  joyful life or a miserly life. You surely know examples of both cases. This is the dramatic reality about human freedom, and is one of the great attributes inherent to the human person. But it is also a dangerous attribute.  We always have to make decisions about our lives.

 The distinguished Greek philosopher Aristotle, before the time of Christ, in the first book that was written in humanity about Ethics, said that the purpose of  ethics was happiness. In other words, that an  honest life leads as a consequence to a happy life.

 Jesus of Nazareth said one day that “there is more happiness in giving than receiving”. He did not say that it was bad to receive, in no way, because receiving is something that is very good: receiving appreciation, understanding, love, a Christmas gift, all this is very good. What Jesus said is better, is that giving produces more happiness than receiving. In the act of giving to others, be it support, understanding, love, solidarity  we will always find more happiness than in just receiving.

 The great Indian poet and mystic Rabindranat Tagore wrote this poem: “I was asleep, and dreamt that life was happiness. I woke up, and I saw that life was service. I served, and saw that service was joy. “

 After reflecting on these three statements of very wise people, you need to be very intelligent, to choose very well the path of your life, to build into your existence a great, authentic and profound happiness. In your life you have before you two paths: a happy life or a ruined life, lost forever. You have to choose.

 If I use my watch to hammer a nail, I will completely destroy the watch. The watch is not made to do the work of a hammer. If I live in a selfish fashion, I will destroy myself just as the watch is destroyed. The human being is not created to be selfish, centered only in consumption, in the purely superficial pleasures that do not reach the soul. Only in love are we able to fully fulfill ourselves as human persons, simply because we are created for love.

In Boston College they told me that cats have nine lives. If we were cats, we could use the first lives to do stupid things, even  to get involved in drugs and alcohol, it  would not matter that these lives were destroyed, because other lives would come afterwards that I could live intelligently. But we are not cats. We only have one life. Let us live it with a lot of intensity, because it goes by quickly, and above all let us live it intelligently, in order to us build ourselves a life of happiness all the way to the end.

 When I was studying in Mexico preparing for my ordination as a Jesuit priest, a classmate told me that he had visited a friend of his in the hospital who was seriously ill. The youth in the bed was looking at his hands and was rubbing them. His mother told him, “they are clean, don’t worry, we just cleaned them for you.” So the young sick man said to his mom, “that isn’t what I am concerned about. What really concerns me is seeing that I’m dying with empty hands, I haven’t done anything important in my life.” How sad it must be to die like that! You are young, but whatever day death comes for you, I  hope it doesn’t find you with your hands empty. You have time to be filling your hands with very beautiful, important works, to the benefit of your families, your communities, your country, and also why not consider the entire world. Remember that joy is found in service. But never forget to serve the poorest, those excluded from society, those who have no future and their permanent state is hunger, pain and sadness without hope. Remember that the test on the last day of life, the great  exam, the only subject matter it will have will be what we have done for the poor (Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 25:31 and following).

 In the Gospels the Greek word “ochlos”  is used, which means:  “poor or the poor multitude”. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke this term appears 126 times. This shows us the intensity of the work of Jesus with these people. We never see Jesus conversing with the high priests and priests of the Jewish religion, nor is he seen talking with the large landowners, he never appears in the cities of Sepphoris or Caesarea,  the largest and most important of Galilee. He is only found walking through the towns of the poor peasants of Galilee, receiving the “Ochlos”, the poorest, those excluded from society, those who no one cared about, but Jesus taught them with his word and with his life that they were important for God, that he is merciful, compassionate and a forgiver of sins. He taught them that the best friends of God are the poor and the sinners. Jesus called this message “Good News”.  The translation of the Greek word  for this is “gospel”. This God incarnate in Jesus said, as a synthesis of his conception of life: “I have not come to be served, but to serve.” And he also said: “I tell you these things so that my joy might be in you, and that this joy might reach its fullness in you.” We will always find service united with joy, with happiness.

 There is an experience that could happen to you in more or less 15 or 20 years from now. An adolescent son or daughter might come up to you and ask, “dad, mom, where were you in January of 2015?” “Where were you in May of 2017?” How sad it would be for you that if on that day you would have to say to your son or daughter, “I was not there!” And how sad that you would then hear from that son, that daughter, “what a shame dad, mom, it makes me sad to hear you.  Were you not aware of anything, when on those dates there were thousands of young people struggling to build a more just, more human, more beautiful world?” In contrast, how marvelous it would be if that day you can tell them, “I was there with all those young people working for a better world” And how beautiful and nice for you it would be to then hear your son or daughter  say to you, “wow, I feel very proud of you! How I admire you!” This marvelous moment that could occur in a few years you need to be preparing for now.

 Three years ago while presenting the book of my memoirs in Spain, that had also been edited in Madrid, I was asked this question by a person in the auditorium in the city of Granada: “how can you be a man of hope after all the political disappointments that you have had in this last stage of your life?” I told him that my hope was not based on theories, but it was  based on the youth. I have worked with them for 45 years, and I know very well all the enormous interior strength and great wealth that exists inside a young person. What I have to say comes from real life experiences, not stories, I have been there with them for years, and I have shared with them the marvelous works that they have done, on many occasions, even heroic works, for the transformation of society, in seeking a more just and caring world. And I told him this phrase, “My hope is that the youth will take to the streets again to make history.”

This phrase was published in a newspaper in the city of Granada, Spain. Later El Nuevo Diario published it in Managua. Later on the Jean Paul Genie Avenue in Managua a billboard was being prepared for commercial publicity – the frame was up with a sheet of flat zinc on it – and someone with black spray paint wrote on it, “my hope is that the youth would take to the streets again to make history. Fernando Cardenal.” It remained there for a year and a half. That is a very busy avenue and so thousands and thousands of Nicaraguans were able to see it. A friend of mine took a picture of the sign, framed it and brought it to my office. A young Canadian painter from Toronto, who left his steady job with Greater Toronto Painters, worked for two years as a volunteer in the University of the Jesuits in Managua saw the picture, returned to Madrid and some months ago wrote me an email that said, “I am in the streets of Madrid with the “indignados” making history”. We know that in many cities of Spain and in many cities of Europe and in many cities of the United States there are young people in the streets protesting over what the bankers are doing, making themselves even wealthier millionaires while the poor are losing their jobs and their homes. It is in youth like these that I have placed my hope.

Given that in a year and a half I will turn 80, I want to tell you that these things that I have been talking about are not highly worked theories from my brain, they come from pure living, it is my own life that I have placed before you, and I testify that in these 60 years I have of being at the service to others as a Jesuit, and in the 42 years I have of being at the service of the poorest of society, the “Ochlos”, I have found pure happiness. This has not been something passing, occasional, but for many, many years, it has been an ongoing experience! I want you to be very happy, with a profound and ongoing happiness, just as I have been happy. The issue at the heart of all my words in this message is happiness, this is the testament that I want to leave you: “my happiness”, that you might be very happy.

I say good by with a strong embrace full of respect and love, as well as a lot of hope.

Fernando Cardenal, S.J.

As is true in many aspects of our lives, the difficulties of the truth lie not in the knowing, but in the doing….

 

 

 

 

 

 

In It Together

Recently I was describing some of the work in which Winds of Peace is involved in Nicaragua to an acquaintance.  I tried to paint a verbal picture of the cooperative involved and I referred to the organization as our “partner.”  The reference seemed to confuse my listener; for a moment he thought that I was referring to another funding entity with whom we might be partnering in  our support.  I explained that we were the sole funders in this case, and that we refer to all funding recipients as our partners.  While he eventually understood the distinction, I could tell that he was just a little puzzled by it.  I think lots of people are, including many organizations who are in the business of development.

Effective, impactful philanthropy has everything to do with the relationship between donor and recipient.  And that relationship is formed from a great deal more than a meeting or two between the principals.  It is a dynamic, evolving association which is strengthened through the ongoing give-and-take which all relationships require in order to be healthy.   It’s coming to know each other, discovering what this relationship could mean to each party.  From the foundation standpoint, it’s accompaniment rather than simply funding.

I have been surprised to learn how little such relationship-building really occurs in the world of some foundation work. We’ve seen it in the inability of some funding organizations to serve as a reference when we have sought to learn from them about a potential recipient.  We’ve experienced it when trying to establish opportunities to combine performance information with other funders to establish a “clearinghouse” of data, only to discover that such material isn’t maintained by many funders.   And we’ve heard it in the stories told by Nicaraguan partners about how different their relationships can be with other sources of funding.  An arm’s-length association may suggest greater independence for the recipient, less interference by the funder, fewer strings attached and less accountability in the end.  But if all of those actually occur, then the likelihood of real success and transformation is lessened.  Impact isn’t created by money alone.  Impact is what we can do with the monetary help together, as partners, as we each provide elements of importance to whatever the endeavor might be.  There is a sense of equality which exists between partners that simply doesn’t exist between grantor and grantee.

I read some comments shared through an association of foundations here in the U.S.  One writer captured the value of partnership well when he wrote:

Along with money, some of us came to know the grantees on a local and personal level, helping them with our… [own] expertise.  We could see the results of our efforts and leverage the dollars beyond anything we would have experienced beyond sending a check in the mail. 

My advice to those of us on the grant maker side of the equation, with an interest in leveraging  the  impact of the size of their grants, is to become more closely involved with those whom we serve.  You will never wonder about the effectiveness of your time and treasure.  Moreover, the personal rewards you reap are so much larger than any dollar amount you may grant. 

The impacts created by Winds of Peace over the years have certainly been tied to the funding which we have been able to provide.  But the most heartfelt expressions of appreciation and meaning heard from our partners have all revolved around the Foundation’s ongoing presence in their lives, our acknowledgement of who these people are, our awareness of the circumstances in which they find themselves, and our willingness to stand with them.  As partners.  We need something from each other in order to achieve the transformations being sought, and one without the other can become either fraud or condescending charity….

 

 

Yareli

There are certain moments in our experiences that become a sort of “freeze frame” of reference, an event or an exchange that transcends the moment and suddenly represents something bigger, more meaningful.  I’ve been privileged to experience more than my share of such moments in Nicaragua over the past seven years, but none were more sudden, more memorable than the encounter last week with an angel.

Mark Lester and I were given the opportunity to visit the Roberto Clemente School in Ciudad Sandino, operated by the education entity Fe y Alegria.  Through its Louise V. Nielsen initiative, Winds of Peace has provided funding for a number of key education organizations in Nicaragua, one of which is this organization founded by Father Fernando Cardenal, himself an education force in Nicaragua’s history.  This particular school serves some 1400 students, from pre-school scholars through high school.  (I’ll have more to report about that visit in upcoming blog entries.)  Suffice it to say that the hour and-a-half visit was exciting, energizing, motivating, moving and hopeful. In short, everything one might hope to experience amidst a large group of youth.

When the tour of the school was finished and the conversations with several student leaders had been done, time had come for Mark and me to take to the road again, on our way north to Esteli.  We made our way across campus, accompanied by Leslie Gomez, Director of Programs and Projects for Fe y Alegria and our liaison for the visit.  By the time we approached the truck, my head was already filled with recollections, of bright classrooms and joyful sounds (that’s right, I said joyful!), of faces evident with curiosity and welcome, of teachers beaming with pride to present their classrooms to visitors.  Lost in such visions, as I grabbed for the door of the truck I felt a tug on the back of my shirt.

When I turned around, I needed to adjust my gaze down, way down, to look at the tiny person standing before me.  She could not have been more than six years old.  The shy smile on her face gave her an angelic look that instantly touched my heart.  And she offered up her two hands pressed together, as if in a prayer, seeking some reciprocation from me that I could not immediately discern.  All I could do was to look at her and smile.

“It’s a type of greeting, or blessing,” explained Leslie, “just put your hands together over hers to return the good wishes.”  My own hands engulfed the fragile hands before me and I gratefully embraced her tiny offering.  My response brought an enormous smile to Yareli who seemed to want nothing more than to create an indelible moment in my day.  I might even go so far as to suggest that her gift created a lasting moment in my life.  Such was the surge of affection that I felt for this little jewel who had come out of nowhere to shine a bright light on my day.  She granted me one quick photo and then she wandered off, likely in search of another unsuspecting subject to bless and entrance.  Do angels actually come among us in that size?  I asked her for her name and she replied, “Yareli.”

Well, there’s nothing else to say about the episode.  Like an apparition, Yareli came to me and disappeared within the span of minutes.  By the time I was back in the truck, I actually wondered whether the encounter had really happened, so fast and so touching was the connection.   But that adorable face was fortunately captured forever in my camera; I looked back at the picture on several occasions during the balance of my week, just to bring a smile back to my feelings.  Sharing it with you here is a pleasure I offer with this one additional reflection:

Children are born of biological parents and step into a line of genealogy which, in part, helps to define who they are and where they come from.  Sometimes the continuum also shapes where they are headed and who they will become.  But in a major way, children are also universal beings who belong to us all. We may not have biological connections to every one of them, but we do share emotional ties and responsibilities to each.  We do have an impact on others, whether intended or not.  Yareli reached out and affirmed that feeling in me, just as 22 years ago a young Nicaraguan boy named Fernando did when he asked me whether I would adopt him, whether I could love him, and whether I thought he was a good kid.  They are moments and faces never to be forgotten because they awaken in us the truth of our shared love and responsibility for children everywhere.  It doesn’t matter that eventually those beautiful children grow up to become adults who speak a different language or live in a land foreign to us.  Small hands can still be held out for friendship and blessing if we’re receptive.

It was a huge affirmation from a very little messenger….

 

How Much Is Enough?

I spoke with my daughter this morning about upcoming preparations for the Christmas holiday and the things that are currently occupying her time.  Like the rest of us, she and her husband are busy with holiday tasks (some enjoyable and some less so), now with less than week remaining.  As both an attorney and a social worker, she also cited a few of the difficult circumstances with which she has become familiar over recent weeks: families with little to eat, children with few prospects for a Santa gift and parents who continue to fend off the stigma of unemployment during a very difficult employment environment (despite the assertions of certain political candidates).

At one point in the conversation, she observed her own discomforts of late, saying that despite the charitable gifts that she and her husband had made thus far during the season, she thought the gifts to be inadequate, insufficient, too insignificant to have any meaning for those who are in great need.   She wondered aloud if she was doing enough, whether she could be doing something more meaningful to make a difference in someone else’s life.  I noted that the tone of her voice had dropped rather dramatically by the time she came to this juncture as she envisioned just how enormous the “needs of others” really are at home in the U.S. and around the world.

Such reflections are not uncommon, perhaps especially at this time of year.  Yesterday morning my physician mused about the very same point, saying that he thinks of himself as an active “peace and justice guy” but  speculating about the threshold of sufficiency.  “Do I literally give the shirt off my back?” he wondered.  “How do I handle that with my own family?”  Wow!  Quite suddenly I have found myself surrounded by deep philosophical and moral questions relating to the poor.  Unfortunately, my own answers feel as insufficient as my daughter’s charity seems to her.

I suppose these kinds of topics come up due to the work that Winds of Peace Foundation has undertaken in working with the very poor in Nicaragua.  But I have yet to develop a satisfying answer to those who wonder if and how they could possibly make a dent in the needs of the world.  How can I even begin to clarify that question for others when it’s the same nagging uncertainty that I experience myself when confronted with the economic and social injustices that exist in the lives of those with whom we partner?  But as unsatisfying as it may be, I have acquired a perspective which at least allows me sufficient calm to get to sleep at night.

It is this: we are only and fully capable  of doing what we can do.  For Bill and Melinda Gates, the scope of monetary capacity is enormous and their resources can change the landscape of an entire region.  For a grade-school child, a visit to the local food shelf or nursing home can touch someone in ways that money cannot.  The nature or size of the gift is not how it’s value is measured.  Rather, it is measured against what we are capable of being or doing in someone else’s life.  It’s a cliched notion, of course, but it has only become trite through its universal and eternal truth.

I like to think of us as existing on a continuum, where every human being is placed according to his/her capacity to give, whether money, goods, time, spirit, or whatever else we have been blessed with.  We see ourselves as somehow being “ranked” on this continuum, thus frequently gazing upward and fantasizing about what it must be like to be “higher up” on the placements.  We fantasize about what we might be willing to do if only we possessed the money, the skills, the connections or the temperament of those higher up on the scale.  But what we must not lose sight of is that at that exact same moment, there are others on that continuum who are gazing upward at us, as well, and fantasizing about what they might be willing to do if only they could be in our shoes. Our reality is that we all have more to give than we do, more time than we admit, and a capacity for greater sacrifices to make without pain.

And perhaps greater responsibility than we like to admit.  The answer to the dilemma is to be found in our own hearts and minds, and will therefore be as different as we are from one another.  What we owe to ourselves- and the rest of the world around us- is an honest, thoughtful consideration of the quandry.  That exercise won’t guarantee the “right” answer, but we’ll never come even close to a right answer without asking the question….