As I began to think about my goals for 2016, I repeatedly lingered on a few words about the life I desired, “simple, full, real.”
In contrast, I began considering the messages swirling around society:
To live a full life- it sounds a bit like this:
Focus on yourself; love yourself; you don’t need anybody else.
Travel; keep your bank account cushioned; look happy.
Do epic things; see breathtaking things; be that epic thing.
Surround yourself with likeminded people but make sure they serve you; make sure they make you look good.
If someone is difficult; hard to love; critical- then let them go- you don’t need people who don’t serve you.
Make sure your authenticity is elevated at all times; so that you are the star; so you look awesome.
At all times.
Then post it on social media.
Everybody needs to know how amazing your life is.
Think it’s safe to say, most of these messages won’t lead to a happy, fulfilling life.
Years ago, in the countryside of Pereaslav, Ukraine, I sat in a muggy orphanage.
The children slept restlessly in tattered beds, wearing the same clothes they had run through fields in earlier that day.
Young as five and old as seventeen.
For weeks I, along with my college mates had lived with these precious souls;
Listening to their heart wrenching stories of abandonment and grief;
Savoring their universal childlike wonderment and raw joy.
They taught me how to hand wash my clothes with little water and a bar of soap.
They showed me the excitement found in the simplest made-up games.
We swam in the river and played hide and seek.
Once a week we got hot water and everyone- if time permitted, got a hot shower.
We ate plainly, just enough to partially fill our bellies.
The children were trained well.
They swept the floors and made their beds.
They scrubbed the tables and shook the rugs,
They washed their clothes and hung them outside to dry.
They were strong.
In the months preceding our trip, I had anticipated the joy we would bring these children. Surely the new socks, underwear and toys would be the highlight of their year. And the activities we had planned for them couldn’t possibly compare to anything they had done in the past- it was going to be epic. We were going to be heroes; people they’d remember for the rest of their lives.
But when our team decided to throw a massive birthday party for every orphan in the building; the children wept in embarrassment. Their response confused us; we were expecting gleeful shrieks of excitement and smiling faces; but as we called out,
“January! Who has a birthday in January?! Come on up!”
No one came.
“February! Who has a birthday in February!?”
The children anxiously stirred and whispers filled the room.
Then the tears came.
One of the translators approached us, “Sorry, but very few of these children know their birthday.”
I was speechless.
The beloved yearly event of my own childhood was something they didn’t understand.
For as long as I could remember, it was a self-indulgent celebration of my life; the day I felt like a princess; the day everyone focused on me and brought me gifts.
But to them it was simply a reminder of what and who they didn’t have.
The next day, while the children napped, I went for a run on the long country road leading away from the orphanage.
Green pastures spread out for miles before me; and the blue, clear sky completed the picturesque backdrop as I plodded along.
I ran with a heavy heart.
Why did I come here?
The meaning of my trip had seemed to evade me.
How can I encourage these kids?
I had foolishly believed that my smaller scale commonalities would bring hope to their hearts.
I knew loss.
I knew abuse, neglect, and pain.
I knew what it was to grow up quickly; to work young; to worry about things children have no business considering.
But unlike these children; I still had much.
I had opportunities.
I had family and friends that loved me.
I had been provided the resources to take this grand trip.
Despite all my losses, I was undeniably privileged and blessed.
Tears streamed down my face as I ran along.
Who would bring hope to the futures of these orphans? What would the rest of their lives be like? What opportunities would be granted them?
I paused alongside a weathered gate; a few goats grazed calmly and in the distance a two-story stone house stood alone in the sun.
I started thinking about my mom.
She had passed away 2 years before.
I missed her.
And then it came to me:
I got to have her for 17 years; I was blessed to have had a mom at all; and then to be here- in this far away place- fulfilling my love of travel, seeing new sights and meeting new people.
All that I loved: my mom, traveling, foreign landscapes was nothing I could hold.
And my stuff and my privileges held no value.
I turned and began making my way back to the orphanage.
Our time in Peraslav was coming to an end.
Tomorrow we would say our good-byes.
I knew I would never see the children again and as I neared the red brick building I let out a deep sigh.
I had grown to love them, especially Shura. A tiny 8 year old girl who spoke quietly, and treated others kindly.
She had been abandoned by her alcoholic mother and now lived on the third story of the orphanage.
She was absolutely precious and we spent many afternoons laughing and making up dances beneath the trees in the courtyard; it was those moments that fulfilled me.
Here, I had thought I was going to change these kids lives, but they had changed me.
One of the greatest, most invaluable lessons I learned in losing my mom was to live life to the fullest because I would never know when it would come to an end.
But somehow I routinely confuse that with only focusing on myself and my goals.
The orphans in Pereaslav showed me that true joy can be found in the simplest things, and with those right in front of us.
So my New Year’s goals for 2016 are based on that:
1. To renew what I have known for so long; but sometimes lose sight of.
2. A life that serves others and not just my dreams.
3. To find joy in all things no matter how hard or dismal they may seem.
4. To remain thankful for every opportunity that comes my way, knowing that opportunities should not be weighed on how much limelight will be cast upon me, but rather how much I might possibly grow.
5. To be content right where I am, with all that I have; and with those right in front of me.
I shudder to think how I may have communicated that to live a full life one must travel the world; climb mountain tops; or conjure up a band of like-minded friends.
For while these things make me happy; I also see them as unique gifts and uncommon opportunities- all of which I dare not take for granted. But the joy is always found in the simplest moments; in the unseen.
It’s found in doing the hard things; the mundane; in loving the unlovable; in serving others.
In living a life that’s real, day in, and day out.
Not everyone has excess funds; flexible time; or the support of others; and nobody’s life or dreams should be measured in this way.
To live a full life is to be aware of what you were created to do and to do it with your whole heart.
For when we do things wholeheartedly, no matter the task, it is then that we change the world; we inspire; we grow; and even better still, these are where the seeds of our dreams grow.
Wishing YOU a fulfilling 2016. May you find joy in the simple things; hope for the future; and love for those around you.