“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” ~Dalai Lama
I looked out my window and saw only sand. I was on a Beechcraft 1900 turboprop flying into Baghdad in the fall of 2003.
The U.S. had invaded six months prior and was occupying the country. From day one, I loathed the idea of invading a sovereign country, so as my plane spiral landed to avoid surface-to-air missiles, I said to myself, “Why am I here?”
From the youngest age, I wanted to give back—stop war, end poverty, ease suffering.
Upon graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps and embarked on a career working in post-conflict humanitarian assistance. In my mind, giving back meant flying to a war-torn country to help the suffering victims.
So even though I considered the invasion of Iraq to be a gross violation of international law, I went. And after Iraq, I went to Pakistan, and after Pakistan, I went to Sudan, and after Sudan, I went to Afghanistan.
I went from one hotspot to another, always wanting to give back, but never feeling able to. I lived inside walled compounds, isolated from the reality that occurred on the other side of the concrete barriers, and not fully welcomed by the people I was there to serve.
And in time, I became addicted to my Indiana Jones lifestyle. I thrived on the adrenaline rush and thrill of working in a conflict zone, zipping around in Black Hawks, meeting people from all over the world, and living only day-by-day.
As the years passed, an awareness crept in that I was not giving back at all.
First, my focus had shifted from helping those in need to living the most exciting life possible. And second, I realized that the so-called war victims knew their circumstances better than I ever could.
The local populations didn’t need someone living inside a walled compound in their country capital. They needed someone with a few resources, living among them, speaking their language, and helping them to discover their own solutions to rebuild their lives and country.
Then, the travel caught up to me. My insides began to feel hollow, as if all I had was my next adventure and only my next adventure would relieve my growing discontent.
So, I decided to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: stay put. I settled in a quiet town in the Netherlands and began working as a humanitarian analyst, only viewing conflicts from afar.
Hardship hit my personal life and I yearned to board the next thing smoking and fly to any warzone where I could focus on the pain of others and escape my own. But I resisted the urge and stayed put.
By staying put, I was able for the first time to give back to the most important person in my life: myself.
By staying put, I became more self-aware and present. I filled myself up with love and approval, knowing that I didn’t need to travel to the ends of the Earth to play my part. And when I gave back to myself—not in a selfish way, but in a nourishing way—I was better able to give back to others.
And now, giving back has a new definition.
It means stopping in the morning when I’m late for work to chat with my elderly Belgian neighbor who served in World War II and always thanks me for saving his country.
It means being fully present when a loved one is talking to me. And it means blogging about peace and uniting with others who have a shared vision.
If you yearn to give back, but never feel like you’re making an impact, try the following:
1. Work on yourself.
It seems counter-intuitive to focus on yourself, but if you’re suffering or neglecting your inner needs, you must first give back to yourself.
2. Give back in small ways.
Learn the woman’s name who makes your morning chai latte and tell her that she brightens your date. Put money in the meter of the car parked next to yours. Compliment a friend or coworker (especially the one who tests your patience) in a way that makes them feel special.
3. Once you feel good about points one and two, start giving back in bigger ways.
Donate money to a cause you truly believe in. If you’re short on cash, donate your time. If you’re feeling inspired, join a movement or start your own.
Giving back is a process that begins and ends with you. And nothing brings more abundance into your life than when you are giving back from a true place of love.
I still thirst for adventure, but I channel my inner Indy into my writing and storytelling. I’m considering a trip later in the year to Burundi, Cambodia, or maybe Namibia—but only to experience another culture and expand my understanding of humanity, not to fill an empty void.
That void is being filled with self-love from the comfort of my living room.
Photo by Justin De La Ornellas