“The most valued love, the most valuable parent, the most valued friend…is the one who wishes to learn. Those who are not delighted by learning, those who cant be enticed into new ideas or experiences, cannot develop past the road post they rest at now. If there is but one force which feeds the root of pain, it is the refusal to learn beyond this moment.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estés
I recently started a job as Senior Programme Officer with the Learning Team at Raising Voices, a Ugandan NGO working to prevent violence against women and children. My role on the Learning Team is to provide technical support to our incredible programme teams to learn more about their work and how it can best contribute to the movement towards violence eradication, while facilitating the flow of research findings and new learning across the organization and throughout the field of violence prevention as a whole. It’s a role I am proud to fill, and a reminder of why I am in Uganda, and why I believe I am alive:
I am here to learn.
This is a mantra I have repeated for years, for as long as I can remember. From personal journaling to group reflective practices in the myriad learning-focused communities in which I have been engaged to blogs that have in some way inspired people all over the world, I have repeated these words in regards to my place in this world. When working in new places, recognizing my place as a stranger in a strange land, I have used these words to remind myself of the importance of humbling my ego and admitting to myself and the world around me that there is no amount of knowledge I can bring to a place that can surpass the power of local knowledge.
Even more, I use these words to encapsulate who I am. I warmly look back to the first tattoo idea I ever had: Descartes’s famous existential quote cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am (did he actually say that?). I pride (and sometimes imprison) myself in incessant introspection. I view the world through these eyes, hear it through these ears, taste it on this tongue, and breathe it in and out through every single moment in an effort to better understand it. As a great man once said, life understood is life lived.
My mantra is painted on my soul. It is tattooed on my heart. It is omnipresent in my existence, in this life, in every life I may have lived, and in every life I could ever hope to live.
I learn about myself every day, through every experience, and through experience I simultaneously learn about the world around me, and how we all fit within the grand scope of it. I dissect and analyze, I theorize and examine, I contemplate and wonder, I answer and reflect, only to discover more questions worth asking, more unknowns to know, and for that matter, more knowns that necessitate un-knowing. For it is in our learning that we consistently reassess what role our often-static understanding can truly play in a dynamically changing series of realities.
I was a quiet kid. When I think back to my childhood I don’t have many memories of sitting in silent contemplation. No, I remember times with friends and family and hours spent exploring the creek with my childhood best friends and getting in fights over whose turn it was to play Donkey Kong. In nearly every video taken of me before adolescence, it is my sister who is rattling on about the thoughts in her mind, and me who sits by quietly and listens, occasionally offering a small contribution to the banter, then receding into the background. I did well in school – at least once I realized the importance of it (I think Indiana Jones is to thank for that, though I’m sure my parents had something to do with it). I always liked the idea of having questions posed to me, whatever they may be, and formulating an answer. That process just made sense to me, particularly those opportunities where I could pack as many thoughts on the matter as possible into my answer (long essays, theses, etc.). For whatever reason, answering questions about life made life more enjoyable to me. To me, life understood has always been a life well-lived.
Today, my role with Raising Voices allows me to answer questions, to think more deeply (and more broadly) about what questions are really worth asking. I get to wake up every day and help brilliant practitioners strategize how best to think through their questions, the questions that keep them up at night. In so doing, I get to expand the growing wealth of knowledge in the field of violence prevention, and use my passion for learning to make the world a more just and peaceful place for women and children to live. It is truly an honor.
And ideally, it will prove to be an escape of sorts, or at least a refocusing. For years I’ve needed something to take my love of learning and my incessant need to question everything around me into a more proactive space. I tend to think, or perhaps obsess over, far too many details of my personal life, of the characters in it, of the role they play, of my feelings and attitudes towards them, of the choices I make, of the choices they make, of how they fit within my life’s goal of learning, and ultimately, what I can learn from each of them.
It’s almost as if I view my life as a fictional story, written by a higher hand, and I’m simply the self-aware protagonist trying to make sense of the plot. And keeping track of plot points is not generally a strong suit of mine – when watching a film I am more focused on the production of it all, of the writing and directing; when reading a novel I am more concerned with turns of phrase or poetic infusions than the story unfolding. It’s my mind picking the piece apart, rather than being along for the ride I suppose. I wonder which approach is more normal, or more commonly practiced – the overthinking, overanalyzing mind picking apart every moment of one’s life, or the mind that relaxes more rather than engaging and just enjoys the show. Probably the former…perhaps I’m not alone in this.
The feeling of solitude certainly creeps in more often than its absence is observed. It’s somewhat isolating being as introspective as I have a tendency to be. The trick is to balance it out I suppose. Regardless, I’m proud to have the mind that I have, to be the man that I have become, to live the life that I live. It’s messy and it’s baffling to the point of questioning whether it’s all actually part of some narrative written for the entertainment of a distant world. Perhaps it’s just a story ripe for writing. Perhaps it’s my job to tell that story.
For now, I’m proud to tell the stories of women and children across Uganda, and of the incredible individuals who have made it their life mission to ensure that these women and children live violence-free lives. I am here to learn.
I’m just excited to finally be getting paid for it.