I remember being pressed up against my window from which I could see the silhouettes of the sunflowers in the garden under the moonlight. The moon was hanging right over the peak of a majestic Central Asia mountain and was sharing the black night sky with a canvas of bright white stars, sparkly wonders that took over the sky. There were some noisy bugs nearby chirping away and though they are actually quite loud, I could still hear the rush of the river that makes its way through the town.
It’s a small glimpse of the furthest northeast province of Afghanistan. It’s a province as colorful as the carpets Persia is known for and as scenic as any ski town in Switzerland. It’s a pocket of the world filled with many minority ethnic groups hidden away in the mountains- with languages not recorded or written down, with little access to the outside world, and with traditions many of us would brand as primitive and obscure. To the north is Tajikistan, to the East is China,and to the South is Pakistan. It is the province through which a large amount of poppies are exported. “Commanders,”I am told, though I am not sure of the technical meaning of that title, have the rule of the land…shifting their proverbial weight around as they please. I witnessed this once when I was walking home as one commander and a dozen men argued in the street with their guns slung under their arms and their hands waving in the air.
It’s one of the places where National Geographic takes pictures for the cover of the edition of “The Ends of the World” or “Off the Beaten Track.” It’s a place where there is still much research to be done about these largely unknown people groups. It’s one of the places where professional mountain climbers come to risk their lives.
I’ve always been attracted to places that are “off the beaten path,” to causes that are “forgotten” and to people that are marginalized. Even as a young girl, I remember standing on the sidewalk outside of our Milwaukee duplex, drawing with sidewalk chalk and daydreaming about opening hospitals in India. I asked my mom if there were orphanages in Wisconsin because if there were, I wanted to visit them and work there. I used to comment to my mom as she chauffeured us to school that the people wearing ragged clothes who pushed shopping carts around, might need our help.
As much as I have felt beauty at pivotal times, like my wedding day- really, the times in my life I have felt the MOST beautiful have been times when I have been off the beaten path, standing shoulder to shoulder with marginalized peoples.
I wouldn’t attribute this correlation with beauty to some inspiration I have provided, some change I catalyzed or some person I encouraged. In fact, most of the times have been when I have actually felt the most uncomfortable, out of place and useless. Many of these times I was layed low by my own sense of hopelessness or helplessness.
Times like the 3 months I spent in Afghanistan. I remember the first week there- stepping off the plane and nervously fumbling with the headscarf I had packed. I had anticipated this trip for months and for over a year, I had believed that Afghanistan was where I would work and live forever. I believed I was totally capable of being superwoman development worker in one of the most difficult places in the world.
It only took me a week to adjust to the headscarf but what I never did adjust to was the overall sense of helplessness I felt. Of course, it didn’t help that I was largely just shadowing aid workers in an effort to learn from them and survey different development projects. I realized that even on my best SuperWoman day, I would hardly make a tiny ripple in this giant ocean of problems. I was overwhelmed with the amount of need, the deep roots of injustice and what felt like irreversible cultural issues that caused the greater social problems. I spent those three months struggling deeply with the challenges of living and working in Afghanistan. I was completely humbled by own limitations and by the physical and emotional difficulty of living there.
I think the last thing people want to feel when they take a big risk, or follow a calling in their life is a sense of uselessness. Sometimes it works out that way, and perhaps, to our benefit.
What was redeeming to me, and, what left me feeling beautiful was that I knew I was EXACTLY where I was supposed to be, despite my emotions about it. I knew then, and still know now, that advocating for marginalized people is part of my calling- and I feel the most beautiful when I am engaged in just that.
I felt incredibly beautiful when I was dancing goofily with some new Afghan friends after dinner, or listening to their stories of loss and suffering, or watched the raw resiliency in their eyes when they spoke about their hopes for their country. I felt really beautiful when I washed the dust off of my face at night and literally watched black water circle its way down the drain. I felt incredibly beautiful when pools of sweat were dripping from me as I sat cross legged, knee to knee, drinking tea with families in their homes. I felt so, so beautiful.
I felt pretty unqualified for a lot of it- but I knew it was EXACTLY where I was supposed to be.
I think many of us feel a little bit beautiful when we are engaged in something that we feel we were made to do, even if we feel somewhat uncomfortable, unqualified and slightly helpless while we do it.
I suppose, in the end, this is about obedience. I followed God and experienced this deep sense of beauty in being EXACTLY where He wanted me to be.
Beth lives in Chicago, Illinois with her husband. They share a passion for cross cultural work and hope to work overseas once his medical residency is complete. They have both previously worked in China, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Uganda. She spent three years after Graduate School working as an Adoption Coordinator and later, a Foster Care case manager and Adoption search specialist. After a recent cross country move, she is now job searching and learning the ropes of furniture restoration and design. Her long established love for travel is now rivaled by her love for Home Depot. Though neither will ever rival her love for the marginalized.