By Peter Schaller
It’s 5:30 p.m., the end of a long and exhausting work day.
Working for a small nonprofit means wearing at least a dozen hats, on any given day. Today we have been moving our office to a new location. The new space is just four blocks away, but it has meant at least a dozen trips in our old Toyota pickup truck. In addition to moving, we fit in the usual casework that comes with operating education, health and economic development programs in under-resourced communities in Nicaragua. For all intents and purposes, we are a one stop, social service agency where we spend most of our time in crisis mode.
I have been up since 4:30 a.m. and both my energy and patience are threadbare.
We finish our last trip of furniture and supplies from the old office, I am about to shut down for the day, kick my shoes off and catch up on email. Just then, Oscar rushes up to the truck, his face burdened with distress. Oscar is seventeen and in our vocational education program. There is no father figure and his mother has lived and worked in neighboring Costa Rica for the past several years. He was left in the care of his older brothers, none of whom have provided him with much guidance. Fortunately, he has found refuge in our programs and we have taken him under our collective wing, to keep him on track.
It’s one of his brothers, he blurts out. He has been cut and needs to get to the hospital. The last thing I want to do at this moment is play ambulance driver and spend even a few minutes in the madness of the public hospital. Instead, I hop back in the truck and rush off with Oscar to find his brother. Indeed, he has been cut on the face and is bleeding. No one knows exactly what happened but he was drinking on the corner with some guys, there was a fight and his face looks like something from a horror movie. He is semi-conscious, and I don’t know if it is from the wounds, alcohol, drugs or a combination of all.
Honestly, I am a bit resentful and impatient. I should be taking my shoes off now and getting a fresh cup of coffee.
In addition to bleeding all over the truck, he stinks, like one who has been on a bender for a few days. But then, his girlfriend and their small daughter climb into the truck. And then, at that precise moment, seeing the anguish on their faces, right effort slaps some sense into me. This is not a time for resentment and impatience, it is a time for compassion. Each person in the truck—Oscar, his brother, the young woman and the small child—all need compassion, patience and kindness at that moment and it is up to me to deliver it to them; it does not matter if I am tired and ornery.
Right effort is what keeps us on track.
I like to think of right effort as a feisty old woman with a broom. She is constantly patrolling the raucous halls of my mind and heart. When she catches me with an impure thought, emotion or intention, she makes damned sure to sweep that garbage far away, so I may remain focused on true compassion and understanding.
Right effort is not just about making an effort to do the right thing. It is about challenging ourselves to do the right thing, even when we don’t want to. We all get tired, resentful, impatient, jealous, angry, judgmental and desirous (to name a few). Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes it beautifully when he speaks of watering our mental states. Right effort teaches us to stop watering the seeds of negative mental states and instead water love, compassion, patience, understanding, empathy and kindness- even in the direst circumstances.
That is when we are truly tested.
We arrive at the hospital and, as if in cue, there are no doctors available, not even a gurney in the emergency room. At this point I am awake and bent on providing all the support possible to this family during the crisis. The security guard indicates, with a nod of his head, where I can find an empty stretcher. We finally manage to get Oscar’s brother into the emergency room and into the hands of a young doctor. I leave my phone number in case they should need anything later in the evening. Before leaving I place my hand on Oscar’s shoulder, just to let him know I am there.
Right effort challenges us to remain focused on our true purpose.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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