Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Keeping An Open Mind

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s excellent book about the run-up to the housing and financial market crash of 2008, The Big Short. This topic is about as far removed from the reality of my community as anything could possibly be. Here, there is no such thing as housing speculation, and I doubt if the majority of the residents have even heard of the stock market. And yet, I found in the book’s epigraph a lesson that applies perfectly to my service. Lewis starts with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted [woman] if [she] has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent [woman] if [she] is firmly persuaded that [she] knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before [her]. (Pronoun changes are mine.)

Certainly, when trying to understand something as complicated as the housing derivatives market it is helpful to have a supple mind, but it is just as important to maintain this mental attitude in any endeavor in which one becomes complacent. I have only six months (!) left in my service, which means that I have been here for a year and a half and have completed three quarters of my term here. Recently, I have noticed a tendency in myself to think that I’ve been here long enough to understand how things work in this community. So when one of my bosses sent out an email saying that all of us in the ag sector needed to find three young people ages 15 to 25 to work on a garden with a drip irrigation system, my first thought was, “That will never work here.” The reason being that all the youth I know are either working in their families’ irrigated vegetable plots or are planning to work as day laborers cutting tomatoes, tobacco, or coffee. In other communities, where there is not so much activity during the dry season - here we are lucky to have a river, an abundance of land near the river, and many people who own diesel pump systems – this project would be a great way to provide an income-generating activity for local youth. But in my community, I thought, there are no youth available for this type of thing. When I asked some of the young people who live near me, they confirmed my preconceived notion.

But then, I thought, maybe I should approach this opportunity as I would if I hadn’t already been here for as long as I have, as if I didn’t think I had this community all figured out. So I went to the northern part of town, where the people tend to be a bit poorer, and I asked a teacher I have worked with if she knew any young people who might be interested in working with me on a gardening project for the dry season. She thought for a moment, and then she suggested a 19-year-old who is neither working nor attending school. I approached him, even though I’ve never worked with him before, and within a half hour he had assembled a group and found a place for us to put the garden. Obviously, I still have plenty to learn about this community. My goal for the next six months is to remember that.

I want my mind to be as open as this girl's

No comments: