The banalities of life can feel overwhelming at time – bills to pay, kid’s lunches to make, laundry to wash and on and on. It can add up. So too can the litany of global ills – poverty, social inequality, famine, conflict, natural disasters and on and on. And that intersection of oppression – big and small, personal and global, trivial and fatal – is where I have found joy and where I think you can too.
Now this may seem counterintuitive, but just hear me out. At the end of the day, all anyone wants is to be healthy and happy. But life’s numerous, little grating irritations can derail our happiness and even our healthiness. This is where the larger issues come into play. They help put things into perspective. I’m not saying your life is better or more meaningful than anyone else’s life. What I’m saying is that, most likely, you have access to things that most people in the world could never imagine. Indoor plumbing, a roof over your head, a bed, pillows, easily accessible food and water, physical safety, etc. Things that we so easily take for granted are a distant dream for billions of people in the world.
I’ve spent the last nearly twenty years working on global poverty and suffering. And let’s be honest, it’s not just out there, it’s at home too – even in the US, an estimated 14 percent of households face food insecurity, which means almost eight million kids in the US don’t have regular access to nutritious food. The issues I’ve been constantly exposed to at work – child mortality, rampant poverty, ethnic cleansing, refugees, natural disasters, food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, education, and employment, and oh so much more – often make me want to cry. It makes me so unbelievably sad thinking about all of the suffering in the world – it is so pervasive and can seem insurmountable. This might not seem like it’s heading in the direction of joy, so just bear with me.
All of the insurmountable suffering will not be resolved in a day. But working toward its resolution, and helping individual people along the way, nurtures an intense feeling of gratitude for all of the little joys that I have in my life. It also brings me immense joy to do what I can to help make the world a better place and to improve, and possibly save, lives along the way. The gratitude and joy are a double whammy that make for an immensely fulfilling life. Understanding the immense challenges that most people face every day and the immense resiliency of the human spirit, reaffirms this gratitude. Helping others really is a two way street.
Making my kids’ lunch can be a pain, but I am grateful that I have food to give them. Carrying my toddler for an hour might hurt my back, but I’m grateful I’m not fleeing war and having to carry her for a week. Paying the bills may seem burdensome, but I’m grateful I have the services provided by the bills and the money to pay them. Every little banality is an opportunity for gratitude. When you have this kind of perspective on life, it brings with it such joy because every moment is bubbling with things to be grateful for.
I’m not saying you have to quit your job and fly off to a Bangladeshi refugee camp to nurture joy in your life. You can, of course, do that and I know you’d find immense purpose. But you can also do this from the comfort of your own home. The first step is understanding what’s going on in the world – read the news about other countries, choose a random country and learn more about it, travel as much as possible.
Once you’ve been exposed to other countries and issues, you’ll know what most inspires you – is it working on preventing human trafficking, getting more girls in school, improving sweatshop labor conditions, increasing food security, reducing female genital mutilation, building climate change resiliency and on and on? All of these issues and more are just waiting for ordinary heroes to focus on them. You can work on these issues domestically or globally – there are tons of great organizations out there doing amazing work. You can volunteer with them, donate money, provide long distance support – contact them and see what sort of help they need. Do a little internet search to explore your options.
The opportunities are endless. All you need to do is take the first step.
The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the position of the US Government. Lyla Bashan serves in the diplomatic corps for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and is the author of Global: An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary Heroes. Over the course of her nearly two-decade career in international affairs she has crisscrossed the globe, living in Armenia, Tajikistan, and Guatemala and working throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Working for USAID, the Department of State, and non-governmental organizations, she has committed her career to being an ordinary hero and strives to help others to do so too.