to see whole

first posted 11/9/2008:
There exists the argument that some returned volunteers have gained insight into the damage they have done to others - and thus become more mature people... The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn't have been volunteers in the first place (from To Hell with Good Intentions, 1968).
i've been struggling with these words for a few days now... what they mean. how to understand them. the implications. for me and for others. for this kind of work (international development). for the ethic they could inspire. for a deeper understanding of our roles. and for a greater awareness of – for lack of a better word – the system(s) we're all a part of. actually, there is a better word... wholeness.

i had 3-4 conversations with good friends about illich and his ideas this weekend. they helped me realize that it's not about just stopping... ending international development. as if that were possible. indeed, many people are benefiting and i don't have the right (or the power, really... i'm not sure anyone does. even illich must have understood that) to just stop it.

it's not about that. it's about change. no matter how slow or gradual... and it does change. it is changing. international development, that is. not just what work is being done but also how it's being done. "it's a matter," as one of my friends put it, "of unlearning paternalism in exchange for partnership."

it's also about intention... the theory of change i believe in is that change comes from within. this is hard for me to describe or fully articulate, but people only have the power to change themselves... and that can be quite powerful. but it can also be tenuous... the control we have, even over ourselves. which is why i'm so interested in presence.

presence, as i understand it, is less about having control over the situations we find – or, if you like, put ourselves – in... and more about how we deal with them. this takes awareness. a greater awareness than i had while i was in cameroon. and often a greater awareness than i have in my day-to-day, even today. even at the 'simple' frustrations in life, whether it's waiting for a bush-taxi or a metrobus.

this lack of awareness had me looking (and i'm still looking... b/c it's hard to unlearn these things) for specific answers to the situation i was in. a young american overseas trying to help. there was more than that, to be sure... i was also trying to learn. understand. respect. adapt. did i do damage? i'm sure i did. less than others? perhaps.

but it isn't just about me or any other volunteer or kind of volunteer (muslim, multicultural, bicultural...). it's also about the change occurring in the people, and the countries, we were working with. change that we didn't have very much, if anything, to do with.

and there's more... a change in the institutions doing development. brought on, in part, b/c of their understanding of past and present failures, and the need to change. there are many voices speaking up right now about peace corps needing to change [see the Fall 2008 'Worldview']... to pick only one institution in the behemoth that is international development. a very small player, at that.

so the bigger picture emerging is a set of factors changing... coming together to change. one of my friends asked me to stop trying to isolate any one of those factors in the hope of finding change in it alone... she asked me to think more whole. it's about the change in everything coming together.

which brings me back to illich... there's certainly something to his "to hell with good intentions" argument. there's a lot to it! "scathingly accurate," as another friend pointed out... and compelling. and yet there's more. i.e. there's a bigger picture that illich's argument is only one part of. what is it? i haven't figured it all out.

i've gotten glimpses of it... and the experiences i've had and the people of wisdom around me are helping me see more. this blog is helping me see more. that is, in part, why i'm doing this... to see more. to see whole, insha'Allah.