Now that my YAV year in Atlanta has drawn to a close, I’ve been reflecting on lessons I’ve learned throughout the year, thinking about friends I will dearly miss, and going on runs to dispense some of my anxiety about heading off to Los Angeles for another YAV year. Thank you again to everyone who has supported me along this journey. Over the course of the year, I’ve grown more self-assured, as well as more at peace in my own skin. I have formed friendships I will treasure for years to come. And I’ve gleaned an abundance of wisdom from the clients I’ve met, my coworkers, my housemates, and passing strangers.
Here are the three main lessons I will try my best to keep in mind as I fly to Los Angeles on Monday morning for my next adventure:
1) Loving another person seems as simple and instinctive as taking a breath, but it seldom comes so naturally, and if it does it is in its shallowest form. While listening to idealistic songs like, “All You Need is Love” I feel I could walk down any street on the map and embrace anyone strolling by with pure affection. For a moment I believe no one is ever obnoxious or petulant; everyone is smiling and laughing, swapping kindhearted winks like in the Coke commercials. So wholesome! And so unrealistic.
If I could pin an addendum onto the Beatles’ sentiment: all you need is love, AND…a lot of patience, forgiveness, humility, and a steady intention to understand experiences from another individual’s point of view. The truth is, everyone is insufferable at times. People have flaws, they can become flustered and snappish, be persnickety over trivial details, mistreat the people they care about most, communicate poorly with one another, brood and fume and leave messes everywhere. People are hypocritical, prone to repeat the very habits they find most irritating. They can be paranoid, passive aggressive, and defensive. No one is nice every minute of the day. I know I am not.
Love is an amorphous concept, so I’ll clarify; I’m not talking about a faraway fondness for someone I do not know personally or very well. I would say I love Joni Mitchell, but I’ve never seen her at her worst, so how profound could my love for her be? I’m talking about genuine, deep love, the kind that would be a rich indigo if it had a hue, the kind that emanates through the shadows of a person’s deep-rooted insecurities and despair. A love that entails knowing an individual in their entirety, admiring their finest qualities, and loving them anyway when they are at their breaking point. As my housemate Jeremy would say, “judging people for their best day.” It’s challenging. I’ve found it is worth the effort, though; to be loved despite my innumerable shortcomings, and to wholly know and love the other people in my community was a beautiful gift throughout the year.
2)I do not need so much junk. When I left for Atlanta all I brought was a duffle bag of clothes and a backpack of books and journals. Admittedly, not very sensible, but guess what? I survived the year without having a lot of things! When I returned home I found every corner of my room was crammed with piles of books I’ve already read and clothes I never wear, the dresser tops littered with knick knacks, and a heap paper in the closet that had accumulated over the years (if you wrote me a birthday card when I was five years old, I still had it up to a few weeks ago). After donating two vanloads full of stuff, I felt so free; it was like boulders rolling off my back. Part of the problem was my affinity for elephants. They crowded the space in the form of knick-knacks and pillows and stuffed animals because I thought I needed them to show people how much I love elephants, but my identity is not contingent upon my possessions. I can appreciate elephants without having herds of them across my shelves. Another part of the problem was the fear that I would regret tossing something with sentimental value. If you have this same fear (I suspect a lot of people do), it’s been two weeks since I disposed of all the ticket stubs, cards, and trinkets I had been holding onto for their perceived sentimental value, and I know the people who bestowed these treasures still love me. I do not need piles of material proof, and indeed, I am much happier without the clutter.
3) Simply listening and being present with another person for a few moments is one of the most powerful expressions of love. Here I will quote my wonderful housemate Catherine Perkins, who wrote these words for the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center’s newsletter not long ago:
“I believe that hands can tell a story. I believe that time is an enemy and a friend, but when living on the streets it can be elusive. I believe that a moment to tell a story can be a precious gift. I believe that doing paperwork feels unnecessarily formal after the harrowing experiences some of our guests endure. I believe that free water can heal both physically and mentally. I believe that it is worth making time for our guests to have a comfortable place to sit and think. I believe that a brief hug or handshake is a thank you worth a thousand words. I believe that happiness is like a spirit, fighting to be seen and felt everywhere. There are many things that I have come to believe since I started working at the OAC. It is hard for me to pick a brief moment in time from this year to share. For me, when I think of serving at Central OAC, experiences flash in my mind from many different interactions. I see the faces of those I’ve worked with and hear their voices as they tell me their stories. The big focus for me is on guests and their stories. All people deserve to know they are seen, but when you are marked as a “person in need”, many people turn their backs, or avert their eyes. We all know this, and yet all of us find ourselves doing it in one way or another. That’s why it’s all about stories. When you see someone who looks like they may be in need, remind yourself that they have a story, and they are human. Everyone deserves to know that someone believes they have value. I believe that everyone has value. Make space for people in the ways you are comfortable, and then try to see if you can make space in ways that make you uncomfortable. The program I’ve been serving through, Young Adult Volunteers, focuses on being uncomfortable, and when we find ourselves getting comfortable, the program encourages us to find ways to be uncomfortable again. Not worrying about your own comfort can make you more able to fully care for other people. I have to admit I have found myself comfortable in some of the parts of my work at Central, but I assure you, there is a time every day, that I experience discomfort. I consider it a great gift. I take a deep breath, and then dive in. A little over a year ago, I never would have thought I could do that, let alone learn to love it. I have found a passion in this place, a passion that is shared by the staff and volunteers, a passion for seeing those who often go unseen, hearing the stories and understanding the humanity of those who are rejected or seen as valueless. Central OAC is about helping people to help themselves, building back some confidence, and showing people their inherent value along the way. As I prepare to leave, I can only express my gratitude to Central OAC for teaching me how to have humility, compassion, patience, and kindness for everyone. I feel God in this place, every day.”
Thank you all for reading my blog! I will start a new one soon to chronicle my year in Los Angeles!