We were in Santa Cruz, Bolivia when I encountered a little girl who changed the way I look at my life. She was about two years old, and I met her when Brian and I were volunteering with Youth with a Mission, an organization giving food, clothing and guidance to drug addicts living on the streets.
To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable with this volunteer work at first. Our family had spent the last six months traveling through developing countries and meeting people with no way out of their poverty. Government turmoil, famine, illness or injury had created circumstances beyond their control, leaving them destitute, with no escape from their situations. But to be living on the streets because you’re addicted to drugs? A little nagging feeling in the back of my brain told me we were helping people who could choose to help themselves if they really wanted to.
As we spent the evening pouring coffee and handing out sandwiches, my doubts were quickly confirmed. The leaders of our group pressed cards with information on rehab services into the hands of young men and women, but the responses were often dismissive shrugs. I saw some of the cards discarded onto the ground, and I decided I was right. We were helping people that didn’t really deserve to be helped.
But then my entire worldview changed…because a little girl started a game peek-a-boo. She’d duck behind her mom’s legs and quickly pop out to smile at me, so I’d give her a big silly grin. This went on for a couple minutes, and then at one point, my eyes swept across the scene in front of me. A few men were pulling an old mattress out from a narrow alleyway and setting it up on the sidewalk. The little girl’s mother talked with a counselor while taking huffs from the little tube of glue tucked in her fist. A chilly wind kicked up, sending bits of trash whirling into the air. And yet, there was the little girl. Still smiling.
Something struck me that night. It wouldn’t fully develop in that moment, but over the next couple days a dawning of understanding settled into my soul, and I knew I’d been wrong about almost everything I thought about my life and the lives of others. That little girl helped me see my water for the first time.
“See the water” has become a mantra for our family. It’s a reminder that each person in the world swims in very different seas. Mine had always been clean and calm. My parents were involved in my life, and they who could afford to put a roof over my head and nice clothes on my back. They focused me on my education and sent me to college. I’d walked an easy path to a stable, productive life, and for many years I thought that was because of me. Because I had worked hard, and I had made the right choices. As a result, I didn’t have a lot sympathy for people who couldn’t seem to get their lives together. After all, I did it. Why can’t you?
Standing on that Bolivian street playing peek-a-boo with a little girl made me realize how lucky I’d been to be swimming around in healthy, unpolluted water. My privileged life, devoid of hardship and abuse, was responsible for my success and stability. I was the product of a loving, healthy, peaceful home life. That little girl, however, swam in a dark, murky ocean filled with drug addiction and prostitution and homelessness. In her water, the easy path I’d followed to my happy, healthy life didn’t even exist. So, how is she supposed to follow the path to it?
This idea of “seeing the water” has had an enormous impact on our family as we’ve settled back into American life after our around-the-world journey. It’s changed the way we interact with everyone. When we see the water, we acknowledge that we don’t know what others are swimming in. We don’t know the battles they’ve had to fight in their lives, or the issues they’re dealing with. Most importantly, we don’t what how our lives would have turned out if we’d been swimming in their water. So, we don’t need to judge anyone. We just need to put our focus on doing what we can to clean the water of our fellow man. Some days that might mean handing out sandwiches to drug addicts, but other days it’s as simple as giving a smile and a compliment to a grouchy cashier at the grocery store.
We all have the power to create a small positive change in the world every single time we interact with another human being. And all those little drops can make a huge difference.