A month in the Dominican Republic opened my eyes to the fact that there is no differentiation between the wealthy and the needy, the satisfied and the unsatisfied, and the capable and incapable. Every single one of us are a mix of everything in one way or another. In the four weeks I was gone, I interacted with my fellow classmates, my professors, children I was teaching, and locals. I was surrounded by circumstances and values that lit up my mind in new ways.
I’ve got a lot of growing to do and much of myself to figure out. I like traveling because revelations are formulated and thought processes are questioned.
Here are 3 revelations that stuck with me from my month long trip to the Dominican Republic:
1.It’s important to know the difference between empathy and pity.
To me, pity is a worthless feeling. All it does is separate people into imaginary hierarchies that inadvertently create boundaries which block connection from occurring. I struggle with untangling the meanings of pity and empathy because growing up I learned that feeling bad for someone = caring for them. My mindset is shifting, and I now believe that pitying someone is a short cut emotion but empathizing with someone creates a connection between the two of you that can serve as the foundation for positive change to occur.
I wrestled with this conflict when I was in the Dominican Republic as I taught students of all ages and got a glimpse of their everyday lives. As my students led me through the streets of their hometowns, I couldn’t help but think how different it was from the U.S. I saw a wide range of socioeconomic levels in the different communities I visited. There were times that my heart was sad to see the conditions the students lived in and times I was in awe of how gorgeous and quaint the houses were. Just like anywhere, the DR has a bit of everything.
It made me realize that as an outsider, it is not my place to judge the way people live their lives. Pity is ultimately that: a judgment. Someone can live a life that looks nothing at all like yours and still possess dignity and joy. On the other hand, I fear that by trying to respect and accept the lives that others lead, I am turning my back on opportunities to lighten their vulnerabilities in ways that I’m capable of. It’s so difficult to decipher, and I am still I’m figuring it all out, but I think empathy allows us to connect with the pain in peoples’ hearts while still viewing them as capable and valuable beings, and pity puts us on a pedestal and makes us see the other person as helpless and untouchable. I am learning how to have respect for other people’s lives, even when their lives do not look like mine, while still doing what I can to lighten people’s loads.
2. You are more than what you do
I find it so funny that we define ourselves so strongly by what we do for a living as if there aren’t a million other components to us that are just as important. As I waded through the garbage in a dump on a hot, sunny day in Sosua, Dominican Republic next to my new 9-year-old friend, Davidson, I found myself feeling so bad for what he has to do to make money.
We dug through rotting food, batted away hundreds of flies, and filled canvas bags with plastic bottles. It did not occur to me until after we left the dump and sat with the amazing Christal Earl, founder of Brave Soles and founder of an international youth humanitarian organization, that those boys, men, and women who show up to the dump every day to put in hours of work deserve a lot more respect and appreciation than I originally gave them.
Christal eloquently emphasized the inherent value and auspicious personalities of each person she has gotten to know from working with the dump. It makes me so sad and ashamed to say that a lot of times I forget that people who fly under the radar of “respectable livings” are no different than those who work in positions more favorable in society. I feel so gross saying that, but it was not until I worked alongside sweet little Davidson and listened to his interests and plans for the future that I realized the way you support yourself in this life does not define your soul and your capabilities.
My friend Tori, who was also on the study abroad trip, said it PERFECTLY: You are more than what you do.
This is true in every circumstance. Whether you are cleaning up after people or running a multi-million-dollar business. There’s a lot more to you than what’s listed under your job description and it’s about time we start treating each other that way.
3. Talents and capabilities are distributed worldwide, but opportunities are not.
Working with several different organizations who support the most vulnerable of the Dominican Republic made me realize just how much of a game of luck this whole life thing is. The children and adults I encountered were intelligent, driven, and aspiring young individuals, but one common thing I heard from most of them was “There are just not that many opportunities here.” Due to where I was born, I’m offered so many more tools to create a life of my choosing. That elicits a weird sensation of guilt and gratitude. It’s frustrating and unjust that external circumstances can prevent someone from breaking a cycle of poverty and create a life of their choosing, but those of us who are more fortunate can either feel pity or take action to level the playing field. Go support people. Give them tools such as education so they can overcome the system that has kept them down. Send money, give your time, but for the love of God do not sit still in your guilt when you could be changing the status quo.
My trip to the Dominican Republic made me face some misconceptions of people and the world I possessed head on. While it was uncomfortable and intensely confronting, it was necessary. I am still processing what I experienced and how I want those experiences to mold me. I am grateful for the souls I met and the things they taught me on this trip. I’ll leave you with a quote from Crystal Earl that struck deep:
You are aligned with your truest self when you are being kind to others and lightening their vulnerability.
Thank you so much for reading,