The Power of Love: A Story of Poverty, Vulnerability, and Connection
This post is a story I wrote after my first international volunteer trip. At 17 years old, I graduated high school and bought myself the best graduation gift I could think of: life experience.
I spent two heart-warming and heart-wrenching weeks volunteering in South Africa. I learned about poverty, helplessness, and the transformative power of hope.
That trip continues to shape my mind and my heart through lessons of unconditional love.
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa
Poor in money, rich in love
The humble words of Mother Teresa stir in my mind as I explore some of the most destitute areas in all of Cape Town. Step by hazardous step, I attempt to conjure up an idea of what it means to act with love.
My vision fills with boxcars, tin shacks, and barbed wire fences. My thoughts center on potential “small things” I can do for the millions of people struggling to live in these seemingly unlivable conditions.
I had arrived in South Africa with a group of eight other teenagers just days before. We were part of an organization dedicated to youth encouraging others through service and love.
While still in Canada, we underwent a week of training to ensure success and well-being as international volunteers. This training, however, didn’t prepare us for what was to come.
Upon arriving in Cape Town, we were introduced to a local volunteer team who would accompany for the next 10 days. I noted then that the majority of my time here would be spent in this city’s most impoverished regions. In my 17 years, I had never seen this extent of poverty. Needless to say, I expected the worst.
Now here, my perspective shifts with each passing day in tin shack townships and boxcar daycares. I quickly and overwhelmingly sense love in these communities.
The existence and visible presence of love within a realm of such brokenness open my eyes to the wonder of its power.
Mother Teresa, renowned for her humanitarian and missionary work, stressed the significance of displaying love in simple deeds.
As I enter Khayelitsha–Cape Town’s largest township with over one million inhabitants–and step through the doors of a decaying church filled with diseased families, my respect for her values grows immeasurably.
The woman in the clinic
This building acts as a place of refuge for the ill. They turn here for shelter, food, medicine, and belonging.
I quietly observe the people as medication passes hands and soup slips loudly into malnourished bellies. I’m told the majority of those here suffer from tuberculosis, a chronic and often contagious bacterial infection.
Once the medicine and food are consumed and the dishes done, our team is asked to move about and converse. After a few minutes of wandering around in my shell of introspection, a woman approaches me.
There is no introduction of name, age, or status. Yet this woman speaks to me with an honest vulnerability I rarely show my own friends and family.
She unveils her life with little prompting–only with an urgency to share and be understood. I learn her struggles and spiritual doubts, her feelings of desperation and helplessness, and her desire to gain control over her life.
Shamed by unemployment and poverty, her survival depends solely on her sister. She views herself as nothing more than someone else’s baggage. Her days, each a mere imitation of the last, string themselves together to create a life of cyclical nothingness.
Compassion overwhelms me and her stories entangle me in despair. I wonder how to communicate love to her.
As her life spills out, I realize that she is not only unearthing her own struggles but also many aspects of mine.
I find and build on common ground to communicate trust and understanding. I tell her that I hear her struggle, and I thank her for her courage in sharing it with me.
We cry broken tears for the pain of her shame, and we cry tears of joy and gratitude for the love of her sister. We explore opportunities for optimism and hope, reframing the unconditional love of her sister and community as a blessing rather than an indication of helplessness.
Through communication, compassion, and connection, I become a channel for love.
At the end of our time, the woman (still of no introduction) acknowledges and accepts my words. She longs for something to cling to beyond her circumstances–a message of hope and of love.
As a renewed hope transforms both her perception and mine, I’m overwhelmed by the miraculous power of love.
So I say to you, choose love
For the remainder of my trip, I explore this newfound recognition of love’s ability to reform perception–of our circumstances and ourselves.
I realize that it is a conscious decision to act with love.
I know that this is a message I want to live and teach for this trip and the rest of my life.
I walk through the halls of drug-ridden schools, facilitate workshops at a juvenile detention centre, and even as I simply browse through the market, I choose to prioritize love.
We must make a conscious, consistent effort to share love.
Lessons in life and love
One of the most common questions I hear when coming back from international travel is “What was your favourite part of the trip?”
In my last five years of traveling through almost 40 countries, I don’t think I’ve ever given a definite answer.
One of my favourite parts of travel in general, however, is how it transforms me each time I return home. This time in particular, I experienced one of my most life-changing realizations:
Love is an instrument of hope.
And I am an instrument of love.
Thoughts and actions for today:
While I hope you find this story heart-warming, I understand why you might wonder what it has to do with self care.
Well, what does it mean to you to do something–great or small–with love?
Where does love start (externally or internally)? Personally, I often have to check myself to make sure I don’t leave myself out of the picture.
How can I share love if I don’t first love myself? How can I help others if I neglect my own needs?
When I invest in myself and make sure I feel loved, I then have love to give.
First, ask yourself: How do (or can) I treat myself with love?
- How can I invest my time and energy to share love?
- What important conversations can I instigate or be part of?
- How can I reframe my thinking to practice positivity and cultivate hope?
- How can I share love with others?
Remember: we can all do small things with great love–whether for a friend, a stranger, or yourself.
Start with you. Be vulnerable and think/talk about what you need.
Make a conscious and consistent effort to practice self-compassion and love.
And always take small, intentional steps rooted in love.
Originally published at melissasteginus.com on May 5, 2017.