I went to Nicaragua to help humanity -- now get me out of here, please!

I want to serve others, but I don't want to be bored or uncomfortable doing it.

By Cary Tennis
Published January 4, 2007 11:35AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I was resistant to your column -- I loved Mr. Blue -- but you won me over. As much as I've enjoyed reading it, I didn't really expect to be writing you, but I need some help. I've been around and around on this with myself, my husband and my friends. I'm crazy or I'm not, I should make changes or not. You know.

I had what I thought was the life I wanted. I was a teacher, but on a campus you only read about or see in movies set in the '50s. I had my "Life According to Garp." My family and I lived on the campus of this fantastic school, I made really good money with the potential for much more, my husband stayed home with the children, the place we lived was a dream destination for tourists, but I wasn't happy. Getting what I wanted turned out to be really boring. I could predict what I would be doing in my job every day for the next 30 years. In fact, I could look at my colleagues who had been doing just that for decades.

So, we moved. But not just to Peoria or Mississippi, but to Nicaragua. We wanted something better and more meaningful and really believed we could make the world a better place while spending more time with our children and removing them from the toxicity of American culture. But as with the best-laid plans and all that, we weren't quite right. We don't like it here. In fact, lately my dislike has been approaching hate. We've been here seven months now and there are many reasons for our unhappiness, but Daniel Ortega's winning the election, the near constant non-functionality of the electricity and toilets, and the perception of us as rich gringos ripe to be taken advantage of certainly make the list.

After seven months of this unhappiness, I've been asking myself what we would do next. I just can't go back to the perfect place and life. Just because I don't like it here doesn't mean I would like it there better now. One of the things I've been doing here is volunteering at a maternity clinic. I love it. My four hours every Friday have become the four happiest hours of every week. So I've been considering medical school, which would necessitate another big move and change, a huge time and financial commitment, and uprooting my family again. Or I could make the best of my life here and spend more time at the clinic. I wouldn't be training in medicine, but I would be addressing a pressing and urgent need here in Nicaragua right now. I've had an interest in medical school for years, but ultimately decided against it in favor of teaching, so this idea isn't totally out of the blue. I could do the good I want to do, but support my family with a career that's interesting and variable. But, I'm concerned that it's a pretty intense form of escapism. I really don't want to be here, and I really feel foolish for turning my life and the lives of my kids and husband upside down to come here. Maybe going to medical school is my out. Moving doesn't seem quite so dumb if it leads me to a career in medicine. But should it? Maybe I'm the kind of person who moves and moves and can't be made happy. Maybe moving here was all wrong because I had to bring myself with me. Wherever I go, there I am.

Additionally, at some point my husband and I have to make some money. The chances of doing that here are slim to none. For now, we're OK, but in the next two years or so we're going to need more than we have here.

I realize there are a lot of identifying details in this letter and I'm OK with that. This isn't an embarrassing problem, and it's nothing the people who know me don't already know.

I could really use some advice.


Dear Wanderer,

What strikes me most about your situation is how your desire to serve others conflicts with your desire for personal fulfillment. I think you must decide which is more important. Either serving others is more important, and you will endure a certain amount of deprivation toward that end, or personal fulfillment is more important, and humanity can wait.

It's not strictly either/or. But one must predominate. Otherwise you will be paralyzed -- as you sort of are right now.

This will take some introspection. I can't say. You must be honest with yourself.

My guess, though, is that you have a genuine drive to serve, or this question would not be torturing you. So I think you are going to have to consider that your other needs -- for novelty, for beauty and peacefulness, for comfort -- will have to take a back seat.

Acts of service are judged by how much good they do, not by how happy they make us when we do them.

If you are drawn to serving humanity, it is logical to ask what kinds of service will result in the most good. Then consider what you are capable of. Finally, consider your personal needs, so that you can persist in your endeavor long enough to accomplish some good. In the area of medicine, certainly going to medical school would provide you a much more comfortable life than serving as a layperson in a clinic in Nicaragua. It would also make you a more valuable caregiver. So it sounds like a win-win.

Just keep in mind that you are not always going to be happy doing this work. It's not about you. It's about the people you are helping.

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