October 27, 2013

GUEST ROOM: A Story About Gratitude

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The summer leading up to 8th grade, I went on a mission trip to Bolivia with 20 other strangers and a priest. Mission trips are planned by individuals, usually of Christian or Catholic affiliation, who travel around the world both to help the indigenous people and to spread the word of Christ.

I didn’t want to go. What in the world was I going to do in Bolivia?  The only reason I was going was out of force from my mother and her all-powerful reasoning of “it will look good for college.”  Looking back, I’m extremely happy that I ended up going on the trip. The experience lifted the veil of ignorance I held throughout most of my life and has shaped the way I view the world.  Before Bolivia, I was ungrateful, selfish and more so than the other two, ignorant about the world.

Coming from Long Island and living in a bubble for most of my adolescence, I just couldn’t relate to the outside world — it’s issues and dilemmas didn’t seem to have any direct impact on my own life. All I cared about was getting the newest iPod or video game or complaining to my parents that my friend bought a toy that I just HAD TO HAVE.

So, when our group landed in La Paz, Bolivia’s gorgeous capital city, I was blown away.  What do you mean drinking the tap water could kill me? Huh? There are some places that don’t have electricity? I was in a different country, but it felt like I was in a different universe.

We went directly to work at an orphanage and did menial tasks such as babysitting the orphans, cleaning the orphanage’s mausoleum and painting a mural on the side of one of the buildings. Then, one night, a child passed away in his sleep. As I watched his body being placed in the same mausoleum we had been cleaning, I was hit by a tidal wave of emotions.

First was genuine sadness and disbelief. This child had his whole life ahead of him.  He could have been the next Lebron James. He could have been the next Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He could have been the next Picasso! His life ended prematurely due to the misfortunes life threw at him and I couldn’t wrap my head around how something like this could happen.

After the initial sadness, I was confused and angry. Why was the child destined to a life of hardships, while I wasn’t? What made me any different from him? How could this child’s light be extinguished, while the lights of evil men and women flourish throughout the world? What the fuck? I realized much later on that I was looking for an answer that was never there in the first place. It’s just how the world is.

Before that, I never realized how fortunate I was. Being surrounded by friends who had good homes and families allowed me to naively assume that this was how the rest of the world was. After seeing the harsh realities of the world, I felt something that I hadn’t felt for the longest time: both shame and gratitude.

I was ashamed and disgusted at myself for the way that I acted toward my parents. I complained to them for not having something and completely forgot to thank them for all that they’ve provided. From that shame, grew gratitude. I was grateful for my parents. For immigrating to a foreign country, learning a new language and enduring hardships that I could never imagine. They worked long hours to put me in the best position to succeed.  Now, whenever I bitch and moan about having to do something, I look at all that I have and remind myself that life could be so much worse than getting a bad grade or being rejected by some girl.

I apologize if you get the impression that this article was about some spoiled kid who finally learned how to be grateful — that was never my intention. Nor did I ever intend to write this piece to convince you to stop what you’re doing and to go join the Peace Corp. All I want to convey to you is what I learned from my own life-changing experience: That even during the hardest of times, being grateful for what you have will help alleviate stress and give you a more optimist perspective on your life.

I hope my message aids you when you’re cramming for prelims, stressing about the job search or even lamenting drunken mistakes. No matter what hardships life may throw at you, there are moments in life that make those hardships worthwhile. We carry around not only our own hopes and dreams, but the hopes and dreams of those who worked to put us in a position to reach for the stars.

Andrew Kim is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.