As a child, I was a bit of a dreamer. Unlike most girls, I didn’t dream of meeting my knight in shiny armour. Nor did I dream about my wedding day. What I dreamed of was to become an extraordinary person. You know, not just the Ah Moi from Klang or, with a bit of embellishment, the girl who becomes a millionaire by the age of 30.
No siree! I wanted to be as extraordinary as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate or a space traveller. (Well, being a millionaire at the age of 30 is something extraordinary except earning an indecent amount of money is almost everybody’s dream!)
As an adult, it’s obvious that those dreams were wishful thinking. Instead of becoming a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, I became a humanitarian worker and although I didn’t get to travel in space, I did become a globe trotter. Perhaps as I mature and become wiser, I realise that I don’t have to be an extraordinary person to live an extraordinary life.
Five years ago, I met a guy in Kabul. He was the kind of guy many women would not have considered as potential husband material (that if you know what kind of life he led before). Basically, his background and upbringing were so disturbing that most potential in-laws would have disapproved of the union immediately.
This guy had lived such a harsh and traumatic life that under normal circumstances, one would assume that it would have rendered him a sociopath. Coming from a dysfunctional family, he finished his education early and became a drug addict. There were long periods of time when he wandered aimlessly, slept on cardboards on footpaths and sold drugs to buy drugs. This went on for a while until one day he decided that he didn’t want to live such a life anymore.
He got himself cleaned up, performed menial jobs and established meaningful relationships with others. Yet something was still missing. The jobs he was doing didn’t quite earn him the kind of life he craved for. He longed to do something much more meaningful and adventurous.
Perhaps it was fate that he managed to get a volunteering position with a humanitarian organisation. Impressed with his determination and commitment to serve, the same organisation recruited him as a full-time staff. His life began to change dramatically as his jobs took him to Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, Chad, Pakistan and finally Afghanistan where I met him. Later on, we would travel together to Ethiopia and Cambodia as he continues his work with an international humanitarian organisation.
There are probably many other such examples where ordinary people decide to leave their comfort zone in search of something extraordinary but there are many more who are content with a 9-to-5 office job and a weekend of fine dining and home movies.
By now, you’re probably thinking that I’m being condescending since not many people get to do the kind of jobs that provide the opportunity for adventurous living. Well, here’s the thing. You don’t have to manoeuvre a beat-up four-wheel-drive across 215km of unpaved rocky road from Dili to Los Palos to get food and office supply, or to be stuck at the Shatu pass on top of the cold mountains of Central Highlands in Afghanistan, to live an extraordinary life. (But if you have to, it’s up to you to make it happen. These jobs didn’t just land on our feet. We searched for it.)
I’ve encountered a few people who have done pretty extraordinary things with their lives. I have a friend who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago but went on to become a wonderful mother. She’s now going back to work with the Justice Department in her country. She wrote to me recently that she might even travel to The Hague for her new position with the war crime division. In her email, she wrote: “It’s all very exciting but scary at the same time!” I could not be more thrilled for her as I read her email.
I know one woman who decided to break away from an abusive marriage and subsequently become a successful photographer. She’s now taking great portraits of famous personalities for Reuters. Another friend of mine decided to give up her job to become a full-time mother and now plans to impart her breastfeeding skills as a lactating counsellor. According to her, she has heard countless of discouraging testimonies by new mothers who find breastfeeding a huge challenge. Since she feels strongly about the benefit of breast milk, she wants to help nursing mothers ease into the routine of providing their babies with the best nutrition.
I have a friend who is training to become a cardiac surgeon but challenges herself physically and mentally by doing outdoor mountain climbing. Her photos taken at the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, Chamonix and Huayna Potosi are just astounding and no less a mighty feat. Back in secondary school, she was known as the girl with brains and we were always the last few who arrived at the finish line during our annual cross-country challenge.
Then, there are many other inspiring stories where lawyers try to do more than just conveyancing by engaging in human rights advocacy work. Writers who are doing volunteer work for children’s rights organisations or simply teaching at orphanages. Another person I am in complete awe with is a working single mother who attends book reading, writes plays and shows great interest and in-depth knowledge of socio-political issues.
Whether you’re doing something extraordinary for your personal satisfaction or to help others, it’s all about engaging something else that is out of your otherwise mundane and routine life. It’s about embracing meaningful challenges by leaving your own comfort zone.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were dining with a couple of friends here. Very often, our work in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia becomes a topic of conversation. The only problem is, these conversations don’t last for too long.
We’re often asked what motivates us to do humanitarian work in countries that offer nothing much except bombs, children with distended bellies and depressing stories of Pol Pot’s regime. Our usual answers are, “We like the adventure”, and this is often greeted by uncomfortable silence.
Many people expect us to tell them that we want to make a difference or to save the world. The truth is, if we’re really that altruistic, we don’t have to travel that far to help people. Suffering is everywhere and it’s just outside our doorstep if we care enough to open our eyes. So, basically, we wanted to see the world and at the same time do something meaningful.
While I no longer want to be an extraordinary person, I hope to live an extraordinary life. A wise person once said, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination and my experiences have confirmed that he is wise indeed.
For the next subsequent posts, I will try to share some of the extraordinary experiences I’ve encountered during my travels. But for now, I would like you to share yours.
This article was posted here at The Malaysian insider on 19 September 2009.