Jan. 10, 2009 - Jan. 12, 2009: Days 7-9
Over the last few days of our trip, we engaged in a range of new adventures - from zip-lining hundreds of feet atop a vast valley to swimming beneath a towering waterfall to exploring Victoria City for souvenirs.
On our drive back to Matamoros, we again encountered intimidating tanks rolling past us, but this time, they numbered in the hundreds and occupied the entire right lane for endless miles into the distance. They drove by only a few feet away from our van and carried numerous gunmen - some of whom even had their rifles pointed towards our direction. I eased my apprehension by sleeping the majority of the way, or maybe I was just really exhausted. In any case, the tanks made for a memorable conclusion to what has proved to be an enlightening journey full of notable challenges and self-discovery.
As the group of us boarded the plane out of the Brownsville airport - now, as a group of friends with numerous shared memories - I spent some time reflecting on all that I had seen and experienced.
Throughout my journey, I found myself struggling with my inability to provide sustained comfort and treatment to those in need. It frustrates me that even in a world where technological advancements and medical breakthroughs have become common occurrences rather than rarities, there still remains so much we cannot do - so many basic needs that remain unmet, so many individuals who continue to lack good health or any means to attain it. Making quality healthcare affordable and available to all continues to be an elusive goal, but its resolution relies on more than just formulating plans and hoping for its realization - it will take revitalized action and the sustained efforts of many.
A new age of globalization is already upon us, marking unprecedented exchanges of people, ideas and resources. The world has become, in many ways, less distant and more accessible. As much as it has and continues to expedite the spread of technology, business, and efforts towards global cooperation, it also means the more rapid spread of disease - as the recent swine flu outbreak can attest to. Issues that used to only affect one part of the world can now have widespread, global ramifications. We are now more than ever intertwined with the fates of one another and we can no longer be defined solely by the nation in which we reside - the actions of one nation inevitably affects us all - as members of the global society. In the betterment of the human race, we are only as strong as our weakest members. To this end, our health and our abilities to sustain it must be regarded as fundamental rights and must be considered as some of the highest priorities of any responsible government.
It will take more than the work of a single nation to mediate global disparities in healthcare - it must be a far-reaching, global initiative. It will require the implementation of multinational task forces to reform healthcare models that do not work and to set up minimum standards for efficient and effective healthcare delivery. Someday, when I have amassed the knowledge, the resources and the level of expertise to do so, I hope to play my part in reaching these ends.
Recently, I read an article entitled "To Hell with Good Intentions" by Monsignor Ivan Illich that led me to question and reflect upon my actions and behavior while service learning in Mexico.
This controversial article proposes that there is an atmosphere of hypocrisy prevailing in America. In particular, Monsignor Illich attacks those American "do-gooders" who feel as though they are sacrificing their time, money and energy in order to "save" or "serve" the underprivileged in Mexico - or for that matter, any developing nation. He identifies these acts of "service" as idealistic and offensive, stating that nobody is helped by these "good intentions". These volunteers, by imposing pretentious values onto underprivileged individuals, are merely creating disorder, because they "do not understand what they are doing or what people think of them". When this happens, they are no longer serving others in a reciprocal relationship, but rather, doing service unto others who become hindered by their efforts.
There is some truth to these statements: when individuals "blindly" serve others solely for the sake of fulfilling some "personal legacy" or to satisfy their own needs for "personal empowerment" while disregarding the attitudes and views of those they serve, they may be hurting rather than helping. Perhaps, effective and beneficial service should stem from a thorough understanding of the problem through the community's perspective, along with a careful consideration of the values among different cultures and different individuals, so that solutions can be found to appropriately respond to these differences.
It is important to remember that although bettering humanity may be the overarching intent of service, good intentions do not always lead to "good" outcomes that are beneficial to both server and receiver. Service should be focused on providing for the needs of the receiver, with the benefits provided to servers constituting byproducts of the good they provide to others.
In this light, I can understand Monsignor Illich's concerns and even find elements of his criticism relevant to my own experiences in Mexico. On numerous occasions, I felt as though I was intruding on the lives of those I was hoping to treat, or that I was forcing my own values and standards on others who did not desire them, or that I was somehow compromising the pride of those I wished to help for my own personal benefit. How can I, a 20-year old student with few "real-life" experiences, even begin to understand the needs and problems of people who live very differently from myself, let alone try to solve them? In many ways, I likely benefited more from my experiences than the patients themselves. I do not know if my "good intentions" achieved the purpose I hoped they would.
But as long as we keep striving to understand and striving to serve those who need it the most, I cannot see the bad of possessing "good intentions". It is when we no longer have these good intentions, when we no longer have any desire to serve, when we, as a society, lack those individuals who are willing to give the time and money and energy to help others, that humanity truly suffers. It is not solely in the fulfillment of the goals of service that makes it great, but in the process of trying to achieve them. If we never stop trying, then we never really give up on the dream. And as long as the dream of service is alive, then we have not settled for the status quo, and we open ourselves up to actively provide change for the better - only then can we collectively build a brighter tomorrow.