My work with vulnerable and stateless people has taught me about one of the most beautiful and profound gifts we can give ourselves. That gift is dignity.
Let me explain...
There are so many things in our lives that we think and do without question. For example, we experience something that causes us pain and we want to ask, “What’s wrong with me? Why is the universe picking on me?”
Alternately, we experience success and it’s hard for us to embrace it because it doesn’t feel safe and we question whether we deserve it or if we are good enough.
All the while, we are quietly pulling on this yo-yo string in our hearts that tells us that we need to be able to file every experience under one of two dichotomies: good or bad. If this happens, it’s good, but if that happens it’s clearly bad.
And the yo-yo is a cruel master if we allow it to rule our thinking. It’s cruel because it makes us think that we need to form an opinion on everything we experience before we can come up with a conclusion. The yo-yo tells us that someone needs to pay for our pain, our loss, our injustice - whether it’s us, the people who caused the pain, or the systems in play around us.
But the yo-yo keeps us from embracing a simple, malleable gift that life is waiting to give us: the gift of treating ourselves with dignity.
I owe a lot of my growth to one of the great paradoxes of life: the people I thought I was helping were also the ones helping me to change. And much of that was found where the ideas for Brave Soles started: in the garbage dumps and landfills that have altered the trajectory of many lives. I, too, am a life that has been changed.
For years, I have been bringing amazing volunteers and visitors out to the garbage dump here in our community in the Dominican Republic. They work alongside people for the day and help them increase their daily income by helping them pull recyclable materials to sell out of the garbage. Sometimes we work, sometimes we take a break and play baseball and volleyball on top of a mountain of garbage to remind ourselves of our shared humanity.
When the trucks pull up to dump their loads of garbage, there is a clamour that happens among the workers that can be hard to process on your first time there. As people literally dive into the garbage that has arrived and are quickly digging through to find something - anything - of value that they can use, it’s shocking to be on the outside and absorb what is going on. But this is the reality of millions and millions of people around the world.
And yet, in the middle of it all, I have discovered a new side of what’s possible: that dignity is something you choose for yourself and there is no one who gets to decide that for you.
You can spend your life caught up in the “why me?” mantra...or you can get up and decide who you will be today, smile and shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and introduce yourself.
Even if your first introduction is on top of a pile of garbage that you happen to be picking through at the time.
Every day is an adventure in discovering and appreciating the full circle of my relationships when I am working there.
Like when the next garbage truck dumps food and my friends there realize an entire pizza is still in a box and high five someones while they enjoy a shared experience in the most unlikely of places.
Or when someone asks them why they do what they do and they smile and say it’s because they love their kids and simply want to provide for them like all of us.
And yes, even when it’s so very tempting to think that someone else gets to determine your happiness or joy, they have reminded us that no one gets to choose that for you.
To have dignity means you recognize your own free will to choose who you are.
A few of the people I have met there over the years are now part of the supply chain that helps to make sure our shoe soles are made. They scout out tires for us and they give us access to a part of the cycle of our “stuff” that we would never have known about without their insights. They do this on their own time and tell us what they want to be paid for their work.
This is the kind of story that we want to participate in at Brave Soles:
- The kind of story that helps us recognize that we all contribute to our future.
- The kind of story that says, “Today I learned this, and I may have not done it perfectly, but tomorrow I can try again.”
- And the kind of story that is full of flawed people who are realizing the power of their lives and choices.
We have had a lot of behind the scenes acrobatics to grow this company and it’s not all been pretty. We are doing our best to honour our mission and the people who have believed in us and sometimes that isn’t perfect. Sometimes I have had to sit down, close my eyes while I go inside and remind myself that we’ll figure this out and that there is a path forward that I may not yet see.
Often, I am able to do this because of the people that I have been blessed to call my friends and co-workers.
We are all far braver than we give ourselves credit for.
Be brave, dear friend. We are all cheering you on, too.