It’s been six whole months here, and you have yet to start your own nonprofit, write a prize-winning documentary, or pen an incisive think piece that makes it into the newsfeeds of all your Facebook friends.
Your victories are smaller. You know the names of the people in your office. You’ve (almost) mastered public transportation. You start to dream in your second language.
Absolutely nothing worthy of a bestselling memoir.
When they told you that international work is difficult, that it can years of work to see change, you wrote it down neatly in your notes, but it didn’t stick. You felt called to make a difference and sure that you could do it.
Now you’re here, in the type of job you always dreamed about. You feel lucky, you feel blessed, and sometimes you feel sick with guilt that you aren’t enjoying this more.
You didn’t really think it would be so hard.
Sure there are the moments you share with your friends and family over Skype: victories and friendships and glimpses of the divine in late-night prayer services, mountains, the kitchen when your host mom makes tortillas.
But after six months, the novelty of hand-washing clothes and bucket showers becomes tedious. You miss your family, macaroni and cheese, clean city parks and libraries, and knowing where to go to buy socks or hair conditioner.
Community doesn’t come ready-made, you’re learning, cross-cultural friendships can develop, but that they’re not always easy. You often find yourself feeling lonely.
You realize that relating to the poor and marginalized in another country is just as difficult as relating to the poor and marginalized in your home country – and you didn’t always do a very good job at that.
You’re still coming to terms with your comparative wealth and privilege, the language that you speak and the connections that you have, your education: weighing all of these against poverty that you see daily but feel helpless to change.
What you do seems like less than a drop in the bucket.
You trade messages with people working elsewhere, and they all seem to have it figured out. Their lives seem more glamorous and exciting than yours, they seem to have deeper and more meaningful connections with their communities, while you still don’t know the name of the woman sells gum and cigarettes on your street corner.
It’s been six months.
This sometimes seems like an eternity, but it’s barely any time at all. You are still stretching and adjusting to this new place.
You may have no publishable victories after just six months. The documentary will have to wait. The nonprofit start-up may need to go back to the drawing board. Because if a problem could be fixed in six months, it wouldn’t be worth you working on it.
You’re not here to save the world, you tell yourself. You’re not here because you’re a good person, though maybe you’re here because you’re a faithful person. Maybe you’re just here because you are a person, and you understand that this humanness owes attention to other humans’ needs.
And that’s what this six months has been about.
Before you can solve poverty, you have to understand poverty. Before you can love people transformationally, you have to know who they really are. After six months, you don’t quite understand. You don’t quite know. But you are closer. You listen better. Your humility has grown.
As you struggle with your identity when your humor and intelligence are dampened by a foreign language, you know you will never again judge anyone for an accent.
As you learn from brave and brilliant people who are transforming their own countries, you know you will never again think of a country’s people as helpless.
As you ask questions and make mistakes over and over again, you are gifted with forgiveness just as many times. And you begin to see God’s heart.
In these six months, you’ve been broken into pieces – from fear, loneliness, helplessness, shame – you are stronger now, and braver, and humbler by far, even if you haven’t really felt a change.
You’ve listened for six months, unable to speak.
You’ve followed for six months, not ready to lead.
You’ve set aside your own agenda – your insightful writing or heart-tugging documentary or award-winning nonprofit – and become a small part of what was already been happening before you came and what will continue to happen after you leave.
And this is where your work begins.