“As we start to really get to know others, as we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgment and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding. It is a movement of the heart.”
— Jean Vanier
Last week I returned to Buenos Aires after a year “outside,” as people here would say. While Americans use the elegant “abroad” to describe travel beyond their own borders, Argentines talk about being “afuera” or “en el exterior.” These words can sound vague or unclear, but they signal precise and commonly acknowledged qualities. In opposition to the “inside” whose contours Argentines know so well (a strong culture of family and friendship, endemic political corruption, worsening crime, lack of infrastructure), the “outside” shines with possibility, safety, and better merchandise. Taxi drivers in Buenos Aires will tell you that in the US, there is no trash, all hospitals are first rate, politicians don’t steal and people obey the speed limit.
“Everything was perfect,” I have heard these men sigh as they plow through afternoon traffic, “but I was lonely.” As realists, they know that loneliness is a small price to pay for windows without bars and economic stability, but still many return home from stints “outside.” They miss their mothers, their childhood friends and Sunday barbeques. Or their visas expire and they get tired of living illegally; they have no safety net if their income drops; someone gets sick and they have to return to care for a parent. Once home, breaking back through to the outside is hard. Sentimentality and fatalism are characteristic both of tango and its hometown. Most people resign themselves to “lo que hay,” or “what is.” Some make this sound like a prison sentence, while others speak with Buddhist detachment. If I ever let slip that I am from the outside, taxistas tear at their hair in disbelief. When I tell them that I love their country, they roll their eyes and threaten to collide with buses.
I grew up in Atlanta and went to college in Philadelphia. Freshman year, I met a boy from Argentina and followed him there after graduation. We got married. We started working. We stayed. Our children were born in Buenos Aires and when we return after a trip “afuera” I feel their bodies soften as we walk through the familiar airport. For me, Argentina is the place where, as Newland Archer says in the Age of Innocence, “most of the real events” of my life have happened. Over time, I have settled into in the language and social customs, embracing the warm-hearted informality that tempts many first-worlders to quit their jobs and stay in Buenos Aires forever. The expat community swells during the good times and tends to thin during disasters. There are tango people, “coolhunters” from London, and artists who burrow in and go local. I have been here long enough to pass for Argentine, and when I meet Latin Americans on the outside, I feel as I have found my people. Although I didn’t grow up here, here I grew into myself.
Samuel Becket once said that when you’re in the ditch, there’s nothing left to do but sing. This sums up my Argentine education. As the child of intellectual Americans, I was given everything: health, education, financial support and love. I was taught to think critically and to challenge authority, to disregard my gender as an obstacle and to protest against inequality. But no one ever told me what to do in the ditch. The ditch is not a part of the outside — or at least not a part of mine. Despite everyone’s liberal and progressive good intentions, I understood that I belonged to the dominant social class of the world’s greatest superpower and that I was beyond harm’s reach. I was not immortal, I understood that much, but I was the next best thing: a white, upper middle-class American at the end of the 2oth century.
When I moved to Latin America in 1998, this narrative began to unravel — even before George W. Bush and 9/11. In Buenos Aires, I began to cultivate an untethered identity in the developing world. My daily life was no longer underwritten by economic and military might. My future, instead of a treadmill to success, became increasingly uncertain. Putting off my PhD in literature, I became an entrepreneur, manufacturing designer shoes for women. I had no idea what I was doing, but, for the first time in my life, I was doing something — it seemed to me — “real” and in the “realest” place I had known. In Buenos Aires, I discovered how to survive without infrastructure, how to bribe traffic cops and not to believe the news media and/or government. I learned that my blond hair and fair skin were social capital, and that Argentina’s 36 million inhabitants were ruled by an elite the size of a hotel ballroom. In short, I began to have a small appreciation of what life is like for most people outside of the US and Europe. Argentines continued to think I was crazy to live there, but I didn’t want to go back home or to cash in on my privilege. I wanted to stay in what I had understood was “the world.” It was too exciting, too illicit, too real to surrender.
Of course, my parents or my siblings would take me in if, like so many people in this world, I had nowhere else to go. This has made me feel like a fraud, but I have neither burned my American passport nor given up the country that I adore. I have weathered the socio-economic disasters, muggings, pollution and spectacularly bad driving. I worry that I will regret this decision when I am older, but I continue to live in Buenos Aires, quite simply, because it makes me feel alive. No one here is trying to be good; they are trying to get by. In a place where people often lose their life savings through devaluations, hyperinflation, or changes of regime, delaying gratification doesn’t make much sense. Stanford’s famous “marshmallow test” is hardly relevant here. An Argentine version would measure one’s resourcefulness: how many uses can you find for a marshmallow in under ten minutes — not how long you can wait to eat it. This seat-of-your-pants mentality, coupled with the Spanish and Italian blood running in people’s veins, makes Argentina a passionate and unpredictable place. Many here are singing from the ditch, and it’s an authentic and moving tune.
Born into this chaos, my children have inherited a legacy of individual genius and deplorable institutions, of a warm embrace and the void of lawlessness. When they were babies, this didn’t worry me. I only cared whether they slept at night. All of my friends had kids at the same time, and we spent long afternoons sharing caffeine, carbohydrates and tips on discipline. Our conversations shrank to the particulars of food, bodily functions and bad TV.
Argentina turned out to be a great place to have a baby. There are special parking spaces at the supermarket for pregnant women and even the most conventional hospitals let midwives run the delivery room. Waiters smile when toddlers throw food across the table, and shopkeepers ask to hold grumpy babies when they cry. Children are a gift, not a commodity, and family is celebrated as the one thing that remains constant in a shifting and uncertain landscape. Parenting in Argentina means doing your best in conditions that are less than ideal. It’s “lo que hay,” as opposed to what’s trending on Common Sense Media. People in Argentina worry about their children’s safety and emotional well-being — not so much about the newest waves of diet, neuroscience or pedagogy. To be a helicopter parent, after all, you need a helipad on which to land.
My idyll began to crumble when our neighbors, a successful couple with four kids, several dogs, a sophisticated alarm system and an electric fence, got robbed at noon on a weekday. Thieves pistol-whipped the mom and broke the daughter’s arm. This all happened across the street while my kids and I were having lunch. With a bandage still on her head and rage in her voice, my neighbor said to me, “Everyone keeps telling me that I should be grateful that ‘nothing’ happened!” I could think of nothing to say in return. A few months later, a similar crime around the block made the papers. Again, mercifully, “nothing happened” except that the mother and daughter were tied up for hours while the intruders stole everything they had.
That was the beginning. My husband and I both suffered debacles at work because of government corruption and censorship. Stories like ours became ubiquitous, and major newspapers devolved into cartoonish representations of different party lines. Economic protectionism kept medicine off the shelves and foreign investment on the other side of the Equator. As the country slid into personality-driven populism, my husband started getting up in the middle of the night to check our doors and windows; tiny noises would jolt him awake. He began to talk about leaving. These conversations made sense in the abstract, but after twenty years of nurturing friendships and our careers, I couldn’t fathom starting over. My husband suggested a gated community. I had always promised that I would leave the country before moving in with guards. I said I’d look at houses.
Then someone from work suggested that my husband get a Master’s Degree. It was perfect, he argued. A year program that would give us time to think, like a trial separation. He applied to Harvard, and I hoped that he wouldn’t get in. When he was accepted, I congratulated him and then began scheming about how not to go. I got a job offer. We started packing, and I turned the job down. I drove around our neighborhood in tears. What’s the big deal? People kept asking me. It’s just a year! I didn’t want to put my career on hold, say goodbye to my friends or my mentors, but the real reason was that I was afraid: afraid of falling for the outside. We all know that those trial separations end in divorce.
And fall, I did. We rented a house in a picturesque town outside of Boston called Concord. We traded in a ten-foot gate and security guards for a white picket fence and unlocked doors. After a short period of disbelief that people really lived this way, we fell into a swoon of comfort and started leaving the kids’ scooters in the driveway and our computers in plain sight at cafés. Our neighbors brought us chocolate chip cookies and invited us to Red Sox games. Instead of protest marches and general strikes, there were block parties and community parades.
Our kids took instantly to the palpable safety and routine. We walked to school and drivers stopped patiently as we crossed the street. We checked out books from the beautiful public library and remembered to bring reusable bags to the supermarket. We ordered books and toothpaste from Amazon. I felt relaxed in a way that I hadn’t for twenty years. I looked younger, as if I were going back in time as well as in place. It was perfect, but, like the taxi drivers in Miami, I was lonely. I missed my work, my friends, the neighborhood café, even the vegetable man. I missed, though I didn’t admit it, the impossibility of doing things right. I missed human error and public commotion and the open admission that the world is a disaster. After years of trying to forget, I remembered the anxiety born of perfection. In The Age of Innocence, Countess Olenska returns to America after many years abroad and struggles to understand her compatriots. When she meets Newland Archer, she confides in him: “The very good people did not convince me; I felt they’d never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands — and you hated the things it asked of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I’d never known before — and it’s better than anything I’ve known.” That is the love letter I would write to Argentina, to its admission of sin and its celebration of relationship. After living in a culture based on personal excellence and professional development, prizing intimacy over accomplishment was better than anything I’d ever known. And after growing up on the mother’ milk of American Exceptionalism, casting my lot with the rest of humanity felt like absolution.
My husband the Argentine (whose ideas about perfection will be forever linked to the outside) was elated by his studies and our new life. He found even the worst winter of the century charming. He spent his days amongst a group of talented foreign students, all earnest third-worlders who wanted to fix their country’s ditches. He slept soundly at night and woke with excitement for the coming day. At night, he would turn to me and say, “How are we ever going to go back to Argentina?” I remembered my neighbor, the stitches in her hair, and couldn’t think of anything to say.
As we recycled and volunteered in community events, we felt increasingly good about ourselves. Like the other parents, we paid relentless attention to our children and there were so many ways to attend to them: by cooking healthy food, reading great books, taking them on hikes and going to museums. It was as far from the ditch as I could imagine. We were living in what seemed to be a self-sustaining, virtuous cycle. It didn’t feel “real,” but then again why wasn’t it? Advaita Vedanta would say it’s all maya or illusion anyway. Philosophers would argue that one situation can’t be inherently more real than another. Reality in Argentina is based on poverty, demagoguery and community. Reality in Concord is based on wealth, democracy and isolation. Unlike most people in the world, my family was in a position to choose one or the other. We could get jobs and a mortgage and sleep easily in Concord, or we could return to Argentina and be useful, both more in the world and more vulnerable to it. Argentina is currently experiencing an unprecedented crisis in education. More than half of the high school students from public schools don’t graduate on time. My husband was studying with some of the most talented academics in the world. He was learning, we all assumed, how to go back and fill in the ditches.
As I admired the manicured gardens of houses built hundreds of years ago, I knew that 99.9 percent of humanity would consider Concord the apogee of human happiness. It represents everything most people want for themselves and, most importantly, for their children: health, safety and the promise of future prosperity. It is an equation, however, that tends to exclude the other 99.9 percent. But most people, like the taxistas, are realists and that’s just the way it goes. If you could have all that — the library, the good schools, the beautiful parks, the safety — why second-guess your good fortune even for a second?
Then I met someone who swept this conversation off the table.
I like to go back to the instant before he walked into my house. It helps me to appreciate the elastic nature of time, how one hour expands while others shrink. We rarely recognize the moments in which our lives change, and this afternoon was no different. We had spent the morning at a soccer game, and then at the doctor’s office because my daughter was sick. I was thinking about what to cook for dinner and trying to get my son Oli to stop playing with the Ipad. My husband’s phone rang, and he looked startled. “We have to clean up,” he said. Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court was coming for tea.
Argentina is a large country with a small elite. Luis is a big man with a serious resume. Even his eyebrows are formidable. At 30, he became the Deputy Prosecutor in the Junta Trials that convicted Argentina’s highest-ranking generals of genocide. Although it wasn’t his primary ambition, he participated actively in other trials related to Argentine’s transition to democracy, including the last military rebellion. For years, he assumed that this accomplishment would be the highlight of his career. After establishing a firm that specialized in fighting corruption and defending complex cases, Luis began teaching “outside” at Harvard and Stanford. He wrote several popular books in Spanish and focused on helping the Argentine everyman to understand the principles of the law. Luis, above all things, is an enthusiast and a hard worker who stops only to enjoy good food and company. Even then, he is still driven, turning over ideas and opinions until he has discovered something new. Fundamentally, he is interested in innovation. That makes him what Argentines would a “culo inquieto,” which is a vulgar way of saying that he can’t sit still.
In 2003, Luis was appointed the first Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. A colleague at Harvard told him not to take the position, arguing that lack of US support would leave the Court dead in the water. But Luis has a penchant for impossible situations. In 1985, he embraced the challenge of the Junta Trial. Twenty years later, he took his chances and went to The Hague.
Luis helped to establish the ICC and make it a reality in the international community. He issued arrest warrants for some of the world’s worst criminals, men like Muammar Gaddafi and the President of the Sudan; he briefed the UN Security Council twenty times; and he endured a constant state of stress, something he once described as living in the cockpit of a fighter plane all day, every day, for 9 years. If he acted, he was criticized. If he did not act, he was attacked. He interviewed the victims of atrocity and the architects their suffering. He lived apart from his family and “commuted” to Buenos Aires once a month. None of this makes him a saint — and five minutes in his company will assure you that he is not — but it does, in my mind, make him worthy of admiration.
Luis was teaching at Harvard during my husband’s program, and his son introduced them. So it happened that Luis came over for tea. I expected the august person I had read about in the papers, but he strode into our house in jeans and a black puffy vest cool enough for a college student. In my living room, I watched his curiosity and zeal spill into every conversation. After all that he had seen and experienced, he was not jaded or bitter. After watching some of his greatest efforts come to naught, he wasn’t defeated. He was excited, in fact, about focusing on education and how to convince teenagers to fix the world. He asked us questions about ourselves and joked around with our kids.
At the time, Luis was working on a book in English, and he sent me a chapter. I sent him some of my own writing, and soon we began an unusual correspondence. I began reading about his cases at the ICC and was shocked by how much I had ignored over the past ten years. One night I lay in bed like a stone after watching a documentary on his tenure as Prosecutor. One of Luis’s investigators described the case of a boy in Uganda who had been captured by Joseph Kony’s henchmen and forced to bite his brother to death. Witnesses in Sudan described babies being impaled on trees. In the film Darfur Now, a female rebel soldier tells her comrades that a man named Ocampo will come to help them. They chant his name and clap their hands. But Luis, despite his efforts, was not able to save them. The Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir’s regime is still in power. He is charged with Genocide, but he still travels to foreign countries, challenging the international community.
Luis, somehow, has been able to accept that he was not able to stop the slaughter of innocents. He has assimilated unthinkable stories and not gone crazy. He has explained to me that when he prosecuted those guilty of crimes against humanity, men like Thomas Lubanga and Jean-Pierre Bemba, he was unable to hate them: “When I met them they had no more power; they were frightened, handcuffed, defenseless.” He has been able to see even these criminals as worthy of understanding and the due process of law.
Luis is not your average guy. He has had an exceptionally unusual life, stepping in and out of history, descending from helicopters into war zones, being feted by some and ravaged by others. When he was Deputy Prosecutor in the Junta Trials, his mother and uncle told him that he was betraying their family and country. After his mother heard the witness testimony, she changed her mind. His uncle never spoke to him again. “Early on,” he said to me once, “I learned to ignore both the praise and the poison.” In his life, there have been plenty of both.
I met him a few days after being accepted for Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor’s annual Teacher’s Intensive, something I’ve dreamed of doing for years. I decided to put all my projects on hold and spend the next six months studying for the course. The reading list was extensive, and it seemed like I should finally learn anatomy, instead of just buying a lot of anatomy books. I promised myself that I would also memorize at least the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra. I ordered new translations of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
Then Luis walked into my living room, and instead I spent the next six months researching his career, recording our conversations and following him around the northeast. This was a thrilling and devastating experience. Living in Concord had made it easy to ignore the worst the world has to offer. After a few months, I had stopped reading the newspaper or listening to NPR. It was so easy, so comforting to let my days revolve around my family, yoga, and Starbucks. I made friends with captivating women who eased my loneliness and reminded me of what I loved about the outside: intellectual curiosity, ethical responsibility and a penchant for book clubs. I felt like a solid member of a solid community, and I felt the world slipping away. It was a relief to let it go.
In the Yoga Sutra, there is a great word called pratiprasava. It could be defined as something like reversing the flow. Luis captured the flood of my denial and sent it whooshing back. At first, I felt like I was drowning, but the more I learned about the last few decades of atrocity, the more I started to pay attention to the experience of people beyond my immediate circumstances. I began reading the paper again and listening to the news. I checked books out of the library and became curious about things I didn’t understand. Embarrassingly, I cried often. On a teacher training in Tulum with Tim Miller, I spent all of my free time with a book about genocide and ducked behind palm trees to weep. One night after practice, I asked Tim how I could possibly focus on the inner limbs of dharana, dhyana and samadhi when children are forced to murder their siblings. Being a compassionate and experienced teacher, he didn’t give me a straight answer.
Back in Concord, I walked my children to school past the colonial houses, certain that their beauty was fueled by disloyalty, cruelty and indifference. At one point, I wondered if I should quit practicing yoga altogether and go to law school in order to achieve something of tangible value to others. I looked at the well-heeled Concord moms drinking lattes and feeding their babies organic mush, and it seemed like madness. I recognized this feeling from an afternoon when I went straight from teaching yoga in prison to lunch at a suburban restaurant. I remember sitting outside and feeling the play of sunlight on my face as a waiter laid a breadbasket by my plate. Light caught the bubbles in sparkling water that fizzed in a long-stemmed glass. Twenty minutes before, I had left the inmates on cellblock 7 amidst cockroaches, rats and lice. Their lunch had just arrived: unrecognizable meat congealed inside flimsy plastic trays. It seemed impossible that these two worlds could be only twenty minutes apart. Twenty light years, perhaps.
During this strange time, the one thing that made sense to me was the Bhagavad Gita, and I clung to it as my worldview disintegrated. I carried a copy in my backpack and left another translation by my bed. At night, I listened to an audio version as I fell asleep.
A single chapter in the epic Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita is one of those seemingly simple stories with extraordinary implications. It is also the best-loved piece of Hindu scripture and the text on which Gandhi based his life. Unlike the mysterious Upanishads or the terse Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita is a conversation written in accessible language that most of us can understand.
At the story’s outset, Arjuna, the warrior prince, stands on a battlefield, ready to do his part in a fratricidal war. He is on the side of the good guys (more or less), but, as he looks across the field, he sees those he loves and respects in the opposing army. In a paroxysm of doubt, he lays down his bow and refuses to fight. Nothing good, he argues, will come of killing his teachers and friends. That’s when Lord Krishna, his faithful charioteer, teaches him a thing or two (pretty much the entire Yoga Tradition). The central message of the Bhagavad Gita revolves around performing selfless service, cultivating devotion and fulfilling one’s personal responsibility. Krishna famously advises Arjuna that, “It is better to perform one’s own duties imperfectly than to master the duties of another.” These duties may be imperfect, as Arjuna feels about his role in the war, but Krishna explains that every action “is surrounded by defects as a fire is surrounded by smoke.” Richard Freeman translates this as “damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” just as Luis experienced when he issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese Al-Bashir. Half the world accused him of dragging his feet and the other half said he was jumping the gun. Getting skewered in the press was just more smoke from the fire in Darfur.
In the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna to reveal his true form. Krishna opens his mouth and there within lies the whole universe, life, death and time itself. This is more than Arjuna has imagined possible, and he loses “all courage and peace of mind.” Arjuna witnesses both the brilliant splendor of Krishna’s divine being, “brighter than a thousands suns” and the god’s unimaginable multiplicity of form. He sees a pageant of impermanence: a great, roiling field of death. He describes his vision to Krishna: “Our warriors and all the kings who are here to fight. All are rushing into your terrible jaws; I see some of them crushed by your teeth. As rivers flow into the ocean, all the warriors of this world are passing into your fiery jaws; all creatures rush to their destruction like moths to a flame.” The whole vision makes Arjuna “and the entire universe shake in terror.”
Luckily, I have only seen Luis open his mouth in conversation, but I also lost my courage and peace of mind as we began to work together. Although I knew the broad strokes of the crises unleashed by the dictatorships in Argentina, Darfur and Uganda, I had made every effort not to think about them. Luis closed this gap with firsthand anecdotes, stories told to him by people whose faces he can still remember: like the Argentine mother who went to the police station to denounce her husband and son’s kidnapping, only to discover that the policeman interviewing her was the same man who had abducted her family; or the Ugandan father who said that he could die in peace after testifying to the rape of his wife and 8 year-old daughter. Everything in us wants to avoid hearing these stories. We wrinkle our faces in self-defense and hold our hands up against the words.
In response to the drowning of the Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi and his dangling, heartbreaking shoe, Charles Homans wrote in the New York Times that, “empathy is, in practice, mostly a measure of distance from one experience to another, reckoned by some ancient tribal part of the mind. There’s ample psychological research suggesting that people underestimate the suffering of those who look different from them, that the knowledge of another group’s history of suffering simply leads people to assume they have a higher tolerance for it. The bodies of Syrian children scroll by in the Twitter feed, interspersed with GIFs from old sitcoms and news about Tom Brady. You feel something for them but not enough, and you move on, dimly aware of amassing one more incremental unit of guilt for your acquiescence to the world as it is.”
Could we respond differently? Could we redesign what Homan calls the “geography of empathy?” Raphael Lemkin, the brilliant lawyer who coined the word genocide and fought to pass the UN Genocide Convention, escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland and immigrated to the US during the war. On his first day as a lecturer at Duke University, he gave a keynote address in which he asked the comfortable, American audience: “If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is five thousand miles instead of a hundred?” The current crisis of Syrian migrants makes this question painfully relevant, but our answers remain fainthearted and weak.
Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis have demonstrated what can happen if we put in our 10,000 hours towards building a more just world. But please notice that in the very instant we read these names, we distance ourselves from them, emphasizing the abyss between their greatness and our abilities, just as we wouldn’t compare our skills on the basketball court to Michael Jordan’s. We could never be like those people, of that we are sure. But if we slow down and think objectively, we can acknowledge that we have made different choices. We have not gotten up at six every day to play basketball before school, and we have not made non-violence or the end of an unjust regime the center of our daily activities. During a recent lecture, the Dalai Lama looked out into the crowd and said, “Please do not think I’m special. I am not. I am just like you. Go out into the world and make it a better place. Do your part.” The real difference between us and Tenzing Gyatso is that he has been actively practicing compassion since the age of six, and the difference shows.
Of course, most of us will not achieve the transcendent grace of Gandhi, Pope Francis or Michael Jordan. But most of us — myself for starters — could do better at drawing the map of our empathy, shortening distances than today seem insuperable. The more time I spend with Luis Moreno Ocampo, the more I am humbled and cognizant of how different we are. But he has reminded me how a single person can effect change in the world. He has taught me that it is possible to stare point-blank into other people’s suffering, and he has redefined my understanding of what work is. He will work until the day he dies, not because he is “good” but because striving is his very nature. He is one of those unusual people who finds difficulty inspiring. When he was in high school, Luis drove a truck whose battery was always dead, and he never had enough money to buy a new one. Every day, he woke up with the problem of how to jumpstart the truck. In the Junta Trials, he conducted a massive investigation without help from the police or government agencies. At the ICC, he had to coordinate international jurisprudence without the support of the US, China or Israel. For Luis, overcoming obstacles is “lo que hay.” When he opened the office of the Prosecutor, everyone said the Court would fail. After more than a decade, it has 123 member nations.
Since the end of his mandate, Luis has traveled widely and focused on education, resisting the temptation to coast on his prestige. Recently, he visited the Yezidi Kurds in Iraq to help them create a legal case against ISIS for genocide. As a culo inquieto, he will never rest on his laurels. He will continue to look for a better, more humane way to negotiate human conflict. I would wager that he’ll stay at it until he keels over one day in good shoes and his black jeans.
Although we don’t believe it, the world is full of people like Luis. They are constantly working for the welfare of others, most of them in obscurity. The film Darfur Now profiles several such humanitarians, amongst them a waiter in LA who decided that he was going to do something about the crisis in the Sudan. With no resources or connections, he worked from street corners and his tiny apartment until Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill to divest California economically from Sudan. The same documentary features a Chilean aid worker in Central Africa who spends countless hours helping trucks deliver food to refugee camps. Both of these men break down at different moments — from exhaustion, frustration and relief. Unlike Luis, they will never be famous, but they will remain in continual motion, working towards a shifting and illusive goal. As Krishna exhorts, their service is selfless and they do “what must be done without concern for the fruits.” Victory, for the Chilean, is a day in which none of his drivers are shot and the trucks arrive at their destination. That is a day of celebration.
Of course, the world will never be fixed, and so our work must never stop. To continue working, we need inspiration. That’s why we need to listen to leaders like the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Malala Youzafsai, Barack Obama and Kailash Sathyarthi. They remind us not to confuse pragmatism with resignation. Krishna explains:
“What the outstanding person does, others will try to do. The standards such people create will be followed by the whole world… If I ever refrained from continuous work, everyone would immediately follow my example. If I stopped working I would be the cause of cosmic chaos, and finally of the destruction of this world and these people.”
I have Argentine friends who spent years in Africa working for international aid agencies. They have witnessed violence and poverty that most of us try not to imagine. I met them in Boston, where they moved after their first child was born. They had opted for desk jobs and a little first-world stability while their daughter was a toddler, but they yearn for the field. I asked my friend what she loves so much about Africa, and she described the way I feel about Buenos Aires. “Anything can happen at any moment,” she said to me. “Nothing is predictable, and there is such intensity in everyday life. When I’m there, I feel so alive.” Another friend of mine spent three years in Kenya working for the Peace Corps. The rural community she served and the two-room mud hut she shared became the places where she felt most connected to other people. Life is too boring, she said to me, inside the comfort zone.
That is the paradox of the ditch. It is a place where we see each other more clearly, where it’s harder to lose sight of what truly matters and where compassion flows strong. But without law, infrastructure and basic human rights, suffering is too often the predominant tune.
Luis understands this paradox better than most, which is why he will continue to work to create global institutions, to expand the tangible borders of an international map. He will continue to do this work knowing that he will probably fail, that his mission is both impossible to achieve and impossible to abandon. He will also continue to be annoyed by people who are not working actively for change. As Krishna says, “No one can gain perfection by abstaining from work.”
As for me, I will stay in a place where I feel connected to the people around me. I will try to be useful: to my family, to my students, to my friends and the vegetable man. Luis, of all people, has reminded me to cherish my children, to take raising them seriously, not to be confused about where my responsibilities lie. Luis’s youngest son was four when he left for The Hague, and Luis knows too well what you can’t do over or change or get back. But the world called, and he answered. My husband wakes up every day and puts on a suit to work for Argentina’s Social Services Ministry, trying to move the country’s poorest adults out of aid programs and into the workforce. But he would do better to wear full battle armor. It is an exhausting and depressing task in a hostile environment, but he continues to do it. I miss those cheerful afternoons in Concord when he came home from Harvard full of optimism, but I admire him as I never have before.
After all the wisdom that Krishna imparts to Arjuna, the many paths of yoga, the talk of dharma, bhakti, seva and detachment, he offers some very simple advice. He tells his disciple to give it all up and surrender. “Abandon all supports,” Krishna argues, “and look to me for protection.” Another translation reads, “Abandoning all duties, come to Me alone for shelter.” I can make a million arguments as to why I choose to live in a place of chaos over a place of order, but in the end, I have “abandoned all duties” and followed my heart.
I will never be sure if I’ve made the right choice. I’ll doubt and second-guess myself, and I may have to listen to the Bhagavad Gita for the rest of my life. I will worry that I am exposing my family to danger and depriving them of opportunity, but, as a human, as a parent, as a practitioner, I choose this place that reminds me of what matters most. I choose the inside.