As you might have noticed from my first post a month back, Christian and I are living in pretty tight quarters during our time here in Mexico. Not only are there six men in one room sharing a barley functional bathroom (you don’t want to know), our room is between the girl’s dormitory (six women sharing one room and one bathroom) and the common room, an all-purpose room for the volunteers to eat, talk, relax, play guitar, nap, and whatever else we like doing in our free time. Located on the second floor of the main building, it is open to all volunteers, not just the ones in residence, and so usually has at least 2-3 people present at all hours of the day.
This, honestly, has been one of the most difficult aspects of the trip.
Sure, the food is different and my body has struggled to adjust. Naturally, the weather is oppressive to someone acclimated to air-conditioning. And of course, trying to think and speak in another language provides more than enough headaches. But do you know what? I mentally prepared for these things. I expected them. And while they’re certainly don’t make what we’re doing a vacation, they are things that I have become relatively accustomed to over the past month.
I did not prepare for two months without privacy. When I go to bed, someone is in the bed next to mine; when I use the restroom, someone is just outside the door; when I sit down to read or study, someone is there making coffee, playing guitar, dealing with a problem. For almost five weeks now, everything I’ve done has been in the presence of others.
For an introvert, this is tiring to say the least.
But this post is not a cry for sympathy, nor is it a complaint of any kind. You see, as difficult as the conditions have been for me to endure coming from my comfortable life in the United States, it takes but a single look outside of my window to see how comfortable I still have it. When I walk down the stairs of the volunteers’ quarters to the common area of La72, I see hundreds of people that would love to have what I have right now. A bathroom that only 6 people share? A bed to myself? A room with a door to close so I only have to be with three people, not 200? As much as La72 is a Godsend to so many people, a place where people can breathe easily because they don’t have to worry about getting caught, facing violence, or finding their next meal without any money, it is not a comfortable living environment. The vulnerable groups (women, minors, and LGBT) each have a room to share with themselves while the men all sleep on mats under the pavilion or on the basketball court; they all share their meals in common; and there are just a handful of bathrooms and showers for everyone.
Seeing this makes me think of a number of things.
The most obvious lesson, of course, is “be thankful for what you have.” So often we think about what we don’t have failing to see what we do and failing to see how rich our own circumstances are compared to others. This is a reminder I think we could all use.
But I think there’s something more to it than a cliché. What I am experiencing is a challenge to two strongly held values in our western world: privacy and autonomy. We like walls and fences over open layouts, suburban homes and rural fortresses over apartments. I want my room, with my stuff, during my time. And who can blame us? Sharing is difficult. No matter if you’re five or sixty five, sharing requires that we give up something that we enjoy so that someone else can enjoy it instead of us. Sometimes it is difficult enough to share possessions that we are not even using. But what about our time? Our space? When we share these, relinquishing a little of our privacy and autonomy, we not only give up the right of use to something we enjoy, we allow ourselves to be bombarded with other people’s lives. Without walls or fences, without clear distinctions between yours and mine, we’re forced to interact with people outside of controlled environments, to meet them where they are rather than on our own terms.
And it makes me wonder: are privacy and autonomy due the amount of emphasis we give them? What if we were bombarded with people’s lives a little more, forced to interact with people not when we were prepared and ready but when the moment naturally developed?
What I—and to a much greater extent, the migrants—am experiencing is certainly the extreme case. Living two months without any privacy may not be the healthiest of lifestyles and I am surely not recommending it as the norm. But there is something here. There is something about being thrown to the extreme that has made the “normal” setup seem equally as distorted. Whereas in the US I am an autonomous individual that seeks out community when I see fit, here, my primary identity is as a part of a community and I have to actively seek privacy from the group.
Now of course, proximity does not necessitate community and togetherness does not necessitate intimacy, but there is something clearly different about this situation than my normal life at home: here, there is no denying that I am in this life with others. Like it or not, for better or for worse, I can’t think about myself or act in any way without being in relationship with another person. There is no escaping the larger group. Oppressive? A little. Claustrophobic? At times. But it’s an important question to ask ourselves as Christians: in all that we have and all that we do to maintain our privacy and autonomy, are we reflecting community and oneness, or we building structures of exclusivity and selfishness? Here, more than anything or anywhere else I have experienced, I have a sense that we are in this together.
Our neighborhoods, our Church, and our world would all be better places if we more tangibly knew what this felt like.
Another great reflection, Casey. One reason we were told friars don’t want to live at St. Pat’s is that we share common bathrooms.
Hi Case, the end of paragraph about community and privacy blew my socks off. You are blessed (😇) to be experiencing community and having to seek privacy. It is wonderful that you see the value in that. Keep growing and helping others grow. Love you.
Sounds a little like monastic life, at least “the way it used to be” in “primitive” times. I can’t imagine how the refugees from Iraq and Syria can handle it as well as they do!
Sounds like you’re not cutout for the foreign missions. Actually, all Trappists including those in the USA sleep in a dormitory, something that was difficult for Merton. All the noises, snoring, etc. kept him awake at night.
It is too easy for people in the western world to forget these aspects of what life is like for those who aren’t as privileged. Sure, we all understand that in poorer countries they have less to eat, primitive or no sanitation, ragged clothes and barely existent health care and education. We see those things on TV in news reports. What we don’t see are the conditions you are experiencing. We don’t think of the lack of privacy, having to wash, go to the toilet, sleep and spend every waking moment in the presence of other people, often people who are strangers. We don’t think of what it must be like to be a child alone in those conditions, or to be a vulnerable adult. We tend to lump people together and think that ‘Oh they must be used to living like that’, without thinking that there are shy, introverted, scared people, those who lack confidence, those who might have physical differences they’d prefer not to share. To experience those things is to have the mind opened wider than we ever could just by hearing about such places or seeing them on TV or reading about them in the newspapers. To see first hand and to share in that life, even temporarily, and to understand that all of those people are Christ’s brothers and sisters, children of God, OUR brothers and sisters…well that must open up the heart and mind in ways that can only give us a greater understanding of what it is to be a human being.
A really insightful read; thank you, Brother! Keeping you all in my prayers.
An introvert! I didn’t think an introvert would ever join an active order, but I guess I am more introverted than you are. I don’t think I have an extrovert cell in my body. If I have to go through two days of your experiences, I would require an amount of grace equal to the whole Pacific ocean or perhaps more. Of course, if God calls, you can’t use ‘I’m an introvert’ as an excuse, can you? And God would give you the grace, wouldn’t He?
Hey brother Casey! I was wondering, how do you pay for seminary and classes with a vow of poverty? Doesnt all that get rather expensive?