A recent increase in rainfall altered one of my routine morning runs a bit. I arrived at the river, which I usually cross easily by stepping on the largest stones jutting out of the water, only to find that the water had risen and my usual path was obscured by rushing water. I watched as men and women of all ages walked across the river through the water. I really didn’t want to get my running shoes wet. Soggy running shoes are fine at the end of the run, but I wasn’t even half way through yet. Suddenly, I spotted my savior. I man of 50 years or so had been standing on the edge of the river peering hesitantly at the other side. He was carrying what looked like a couple of very heavy bags, one in each hand. Just when I expected him to turn around and admit defeat, he started across the river. He hopped from stone to stone and was completely dry when he made it across. All I had to do was follow his footsteps.
I laughed a little to myself as I started across the river in the shadow of the man with the bags. My shoes stayed dry. I never listen to music or podcasts when I run, so I was alone with my thoughts as I continued on. The man from the river lingered in my mind and reminded me of how often we discount those from whom we have the most to learn. We approach a situation and immediately start sizing it up, assuming that we are equipped to determine the best way to proceed. I spent close to 5 minutes standing on the edge of the river attempting various paths across before I looked up and realized that I could learn from the unassuming old man next to me; a man who has likely lived with this river every day of his life, rainy season after rainy season.
Working for the summer in a country scarred by wars and pervasive poverty, I have often felt overwhelmed. The man with the bags reminded me of a lesson I have gleaned from a number of my grad school classes. People are resilient. Learn from their resiliency. When I see a person or persons facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle I immediately start thinking about how they should maneuver through or around it. Instead I must sit and watch. I do myself, and them a disservice if I fail to notice what is already working.
As I walk through a clinic here in Ethiopia, I am tempted to focus on the lack of running water, the unreliable electricity, the seeming disarray, and the fact that most of the patients probably should have presented for care days ago. Then I watch a pregnant woman receive care. I watch her HIV test turn negative and her blood pressure read within normal limits. I watch the midwife warn her about the danger signs of pregnancy and childbirth and instruct her to return to the clinic as soon as possible if she develops any of them. I watch a nurse hold a sick child and prescribe antibiotics in order to hasten his return to a healthy state. She may be saving his life. I think to myself, “there is a lot that is working here.” I want to make it look “pretty,” but in reality there are a lot of beautiful things happening right in front of me. I can hear my professor’s voice saying, “notice those beautiful things.” Okay, I’ll try. The next time I come to an impassable river, I’ll look to those around me and notice how they are getting across before I decide I need to build a bridge.