Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lessons from 2012

As indicated by the date of my last post my blogging habits have been rather dismal for the last few months. Besides the excuse of the increasing busyness of school, the fact that I was robbed and have been laptop-less for the past month in half has been the main contributor to my lack of writing. After a lovely week and a half of catching up with family and friends in the arctic weather of Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chicago, I'm back in "warm" Delft.

Since it's a new year and the new year always brings about the opportunity for reflection, I've been thinking about the lessons that I learned from 2012. 2012 was a year of transitions perhaps more than any other year in my life and with each of these transitions brought rich learning experiences. I am enormously grateful for the people I've been blessed to meet this year, the beautiful places I've seen, and the unpredictability of 2012 that taught me more about myself and the world.

Lessons from 2012:

1. Almost nothing in the world is black and white. 
For much of my life, I tended to view the world in black and white or right and wrong. My somewhat mathematical mind that gravitates towards the concrete and seeks solutions, only reinforced this worldview. In engineering school, there was always a right answer to be found, an equation that could be applied to find a solution, and rules that governed behaviour. Slowly, I've been learning that life and most of the world's problems cannot be solved through an engineering approach (although the problem solving skills that engineering taught me have been invaluable). Democracy is not the "right" system of governance. Development problems are so complex and multi-faceted that a solution or solutions seem completely inadequate. Even the existence of a "problem" can be debated: what is viewed as a problem to one party, might be a solution to another.

Now I prefer to view the world in color, trying to open the color wheel of my mind to new possibilities, theories, solutions, problems, and people. In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut and all the debate surrounding it, I sincerely hope that we can open our minds to first acknowledge that there is a problem in our country, then seek to accept that there may be many possible solutions and combinations of solutions. I may share my views on this tragedy later but for now I encourage everyone (myself included) to think about how multi-faceted the problem may be and how it may require us to fundamentally alter our culture (because culture is not right or wrong).

This year I've learned that while the western world views Uganda's astronomically high fertility rate as a problem, Uganda views it as a solution. While the sanctions on Iran can be seen as more "effective" and probably a better alternative to violent action, they have placed significant burden on ordinary Iranians more so perhaps than the government. While affordable/practically free education can lead to highly educated citizens and zero to low debt for graduated students, it can also lead to less motivation and longer time to finish studies. While high taxes (particularly for the wealthy)  might be seen as unfair or restricting capitalism, they also provide services such as low cost education, high quality and affordable healthcare, and good infrastructure and public transit. While foreign aid can prevent starvation, it can also promote a culture of dependency and stifle real economic growth.

Viewing the world in color doesn't necessarily mean sacrificing morals, it just means stretching your mind to view the world through a different lens. I'm thankful for the experiences of 2012 that "colored" my worldview.

2. Life is short. 
Prior to 2012 I had experienced a few deaths of those close to me, but living in Uganda brought the reality of the briefness of life to the forefront. The sudden death of our project driver in Uganda and the daily news of staff family member deaths (often children), made me both grateful for the quality healthcare I've received and made me think more closely about how I can make the time (how ever long that may be) given me count.

I hope that I can remember to make every day meaningful and treasure the time I have with those that are close to me.

3. Relationships are far more valuable than things. 
This lesson may seem a bit basic and is something I could have preached about years ago, but 2012 brought many reminders of the lasting value in human relationships. Naturally, living in the developing world reminds you about how belongings do not bring happiness and living in Uganda forced me to re-think how to simplify my life. Living simply has never come too difficultly for me, mostly due to my lifelong borderline obsession with saving money. My difficulty has come more in re-evaluating my relationship with money. I've never had the dream of being a CEO or becoming a millionaire or even being rich. Perhaps compared to many, I own very little, but certainly compared to most of the world's population I live a life of luxury. Ironically, 2012's biggest lesson in money did not come from Uganda but rather in the Netherlands.

Approximately six weeks ago my apartment was robbed and my laptop stolen. For much of the last year I was living in sub-Saharan Africa, knowing that I should always be aware of the risk of theft. Fortunately, I was never robbed. I still have a hard time believing that I was robbed in the Netherlands, but I am actually thankful for the experience. Surprisingly, after losing my laptop the only thing I found myself upset about was the loss of some photos and documents--irreplaceable items. The experience made me realize how "stuff" is almost always replaceable and brings very little long term joy. Human beings and memories are not replaceable and therefore relationships, not bank accounts should grow and develop. While I still do not enjoy spending money, I am extremely grateful that I had the money to purchase a new laptop and although I still place high value on being financially responsible, I hope I can waste more energy in cultivating meaningful friendships than stressing about spending money.

4. Dogs sadly have shorter lives than humans. 
Perhaps this lesson is one I should have learned long ago, but somehow I never imagined coming back to Michigan without being greeted by the best dog in the world: Unser. On December 20th, 2012, Unser was put down. I will never forget Unser's love for the snow, his excitement over going for a run with me, his love of human beings and other dogs, his dislike of being alone, his love of killing innocent creatures such as fawns and baby rabbits, his love of sleeping on the couch in spite of his knowledge that he wasn't allowed to, and his stubbornness.

I will never understand why dogs mean so much to human beings and why we become so attached to them. Perhaps it's the unconditionally, non-judgmental love they display. Either way, Unser had a special place in my heart and I will forever miss him.

5. Human beings can get along in spite of differences. 
Over the last year, I've had the privilege of meeting and making friends with: Americans, Ugandans, Kenyans, Irish, Italians, English, Zimbabweans, South Africans, Koreans, Iranians, Dutch, Germans, Turkish, French, Greeks, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and many more that I'm probably forgetting. Many of these people come from countries that do not have good relationships with the US government, most of them have different beliefs and culture than me, but in spite of all outside differences I've learned so much from these people and I can't imagine life without them. Reading the world news depresses me, but when I spend time with the wonderful people who I've crossed paths with I'm filled with hope for our world. I truly do believe that human beings can get along in spite of differences.

There are probably a million more smaller lessons that 2012 taught me but I'll conclude with this thought: on my birthday last year I was asked the question of what one thing do I want to accomplish by my next birthday (which is rapidly approaching). I answered that I hope to be in grad school in the Netherlands. At the time my answer scared me because the last year and half had been filled with rejections (a concept that I wasn't familiar with), but amazingly I am here and feel incredibly blessed that I am. For the first time, I'm beginning to understand the frightening (to me at least) idea of settling down and home. I wouldn't have expected to call Delft home after the last two years of globe trotting, my extreme dislike for grey skies and cold, and love of mountains. But surprisingly, I feel at home a midst the rain, bikes, canals and cheese. Who knows if I will ever settle down or more specifically settle here, but at the moment I'm learning to be content living somewhere I feel comfortable in, feeling part of a community, and knowing where I will be for approximately the next year and a half. 2013 already feels uncomfortably stable but I am sure it will bring its own share of adventures, surprises, and lessons.  

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