Since I was a little girl, I wanted to lead a different kind of life – not just venture off the beaten path, but live in a way that was grand and unusual. Extraordinary, even.
When I first started volunteering at the Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura, or IMAP, I was appalled by the way things worked – or rather, didn’t work. The bathroom door wouldn’t shut all the way. Team meetings would last all day. The staff would arrive late every day. For some, lunch would regularly turn into nap time.
But this small NGO from Guatemala had been featured in prestigious journals and documentaries. It had attracted significant attention from academia and world-renown “eco-stars” and was the go-to permaculture certification center in Central America. Despite its slow work pace, IMAP had been thriving for a full eleven years before my arrival.
Still, I thought, it couldn’t hurt to be more productive. I put my nose to the grindstone and brought to my work an imposing (and exhausting) amount of enthusiasm. I wrote grant proposals, built websites, coordinated groups of well-meaning North Americans. I lifted rocks and planted trees. I showed up on time.
Gradually, like water trickling down a ploughed field, easing its way through the earth, I realized that despite all my efforts, problems still arose on a daily basis. Funds were still low, water was still contaminated in the rural communities where we worked.
I began to understand that I was missing the point. Sweeping through my tasks at great speed, a self-appointed scapegoat for the NGO’s challenges, I was left feeling unfulfilled, rushed and anxious – exactly how I’d felt in the life I’d left behind.
Unsure what else to do, I stopped. I sat.
I sat with the discomfort of realizing that despite my best intentions, I wasn’t on the right path.
I sat with the knowledge that I wasn’t making a difference.
I sat with my mistakes.
And then I checked in with the people around me. Was I cultivating authenticity and kindness? Was I truly being of service to the people I was trying to help?
As soon as I reached that humbling conclusion, I knew that the change needed to come not from the people I was working with, but from within my own self.
I needed to slow down.
Instead of doing things my way (the fast way), I needed to accept that people would work at their own pace. This meant letting go of my perception of “success” – getting things done quickly and efficiently – and figuring out how to develop skills within the organization. Otherwise, if I happened to up and leave, projects would run their course, websites would expire, North Americans would no longer be able bring their groups.
The decision to shift my perception wasn’t easy. It required immense reserves of vulnerability, tolerance, and patience.
But was it worth it? Yes. Resoundingly, yes.
My help, although valuable, wasn’t invaluable. In fact, that’s precisely why the NGO continues to thrive – because it’s run by local people. Plenty of which were eager to learn the skills I brought to the table.
Above all, easing into a slower pace has enabled me to value my tasks – whatever they may be – as an end to themselves. It’s in the slow pace itself that I now find contentment. There is time, now, to look people in the eye. There is time to notice the beauty of compassion, kindness and, yes, hard work, not in myself, but in others.
There is also time to sit with the discomfort of mistakes and disappointments. And to appreciate the ordinary in this extraordinary life.