Back From My 40th Origin Trip: A Reminder That I Am Alive

I just returned from leading a group of 15 local high school students to visit cocoa farmers in a remote Tanzanian village on Lake Nyasa in the shadow of the Livingston Mountains. Since 2010 this journey has been part of our Chocolate University program inspiring local students that business can be a force for good in the world. More importantly we give students an opportunity to receive radical hospitality.

On days when I am open and aware I know what it feels like when time stops and I am locked in the present moment. At this point I’ve experienced it enough times to know generally when it’s coming, a kind of warning that I am about to be reminded that I am alive. Usually it’s when I am not expecting it. As strange as it might sound I do not think we choose these moments, they choose us. I’d like to focus on just one from last week.

Nearly every time I’ve traveled to this spot in East Africa I have been a special guest at a graduation ceremony for Empowered Girls and now Enlightened Boys. Last week was no exception. Clocking in at 3 to 4 hours these ceremonies tend to be long by American standards. For some of these young women and men this might be one of the the most memorable days of their lives. It’s a big deal. Side note: we fund and staff Empowered Girls in the region. It was founded and continues to be managed globally by angel on earth Kellen Msseemmaa. We founded, fund and staff Enlightened Boys. Both programs teach self esteem, life skills, sex education and non-violence empowering and enlightening these young Tanzanians for a hopeful future.

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Last Sunday afternoon we walked up the foothills about a mile from the village center to the secondary school to attend the graduation ceremony. Nearly 500 students welcomed us with song as our group of American students arrived. We sat at the head tables, adorned with white tablecloths, as the guests of honor. It was hot with zero breeze. There was a meticulously placed bottle of Fanta, Coca-Cola, and water on the table in front of each of us. Lawren spoke on behalf of our group encouraging the young graduates and thanking them for their hard work and dedication. The village students worked hard for weeks in advance of our visit preparing skits and songs to mark the honor of this celebration.

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A group of about 30 young women from Matema Secondary moved to the front of this open air oversized classroom to sing a tribal welcome song in their native Nyakyusa dialect. It was a hauntingly beautiful call and response. I had literally no idea what they were saying but I did not need to know. That’s when it happened. Rapture. Time stopped. I did not need to speak Nyakyusa to know that God was speaking. Overwhelmed. What did He say? I have no idea. He was not speaking “to” me. I was an observer, a listener. I videoed part of the song and have played it at least 100 times since that day. Listening to the song over and over brings me right back to that place. I cannot even talk about it without becoming emotional. For a few days I struggled with why? I’ve been to many graduation ceremonies where songs and skits were performed. Why this celebration? Why this song? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I am aware of my limitations as a writer. Words are not available to me to describe what happened. In fact, my words are unimportant and I take comfort in that.

 

I quote Joseph Campbell in my book and he’s an expert on this topic so I’ll bring him into this conversation. He recounted to Bill Moyers in the now famous PBS interview series:

“My friend Heinrich Zimmer of years ago used to say, ‘The best things can’t be told,’ because they transcend thought. ‘The second best are misunderstood,’ because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about, and one gets stuck in the thoughts. ‘The third best are what we talk about.”

Here I am “talking about” this present moment of transcendence that probably only lasted a matter of seconds in reality. You see where my feeble attempt ranks in the order of understanding according to Campbell and I agree. Transcendent experiences remind us of our our true selves, who we are, that we are alive. The practice is not about finding the next transcendent experience. That would be tempting but unsustainable. Instead, it’s about pulling the thread of that experience forward into the stitches of our daily lives. My question now revolves around ways I can integrate that moment into my day.

I can look to Christ’s mother as the role model of integration. After the shepherds came to see her baby in the manger proclaiming the angel’s message “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” That’s enough for me. I treasure that moment of song and will ponder it in my heart for many days to come.

Digging Deeper: Reverse scale makes moments like this possible. I have a sense of what the practice of reverse scale feels like. It’s a practice we can use to discover and stay tethered to our true selves in life and business. For me it means that I led this trip with the students when I could have delegated it to someone else. Not scale but reverse scale which can also be called human scale. Read more about priming the pump of reverse scale in your life in Chapter 5 of my book.

 

Reverse Scale: It’s A Practice Not A Place

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We leave in three days for rural Tanzania with 14 local high school students in tow. They’re an elite group of students who competed to be part of our Chocolate University high school program. We launched the project in 2009 and have been taking students to Tanzania ever since. Hold that thought.

We write about reverse scale extensively in the book. What is it? It’s a practice of recognizing the value of not scaling. One of our beliefs, coined by Lawren, is that our vocation is not necessarily getting bigger but getting better at staying small. We’re conditioned by our business culture to believe that unless the idea is big and capable of rapid scale then it has little value. Can we take a step back and reconsider this dogma? Could we assess value even if our idea helps only one person or if it only transforms us? True sustainability lies within the answers to these questions. If more of us answered the call to action on the supposedly “small” ideas then imagine the kind of social problems the world could address.

We tend to think “more” and “bigger” will always be better, that somehow they will allow us to finally breathe easier when we arrive. The problem is that it’s often an illusion because we never really arrive at the place that’s just out of reach. Scale demands that every single person in the chain focus on what’s next and on finding someone to do the thing that’s now ‘below’ them in order to move themselves up. Anything less than that and you will lose the race for scale, because someone else is more focused than you.

Reverse scale could also be called human scale. It is in the smallness of one on one relationships that we find meaning because we’re not insulated from the pain and sorrows of these connections. We tend to lose this when we’re so focused on scale and growth.

Could we have scaled Chocolate University nationwide or worldwide by now? Probably. Perhaps I’d be managing (not leading) multiple trips a year with students from around the world to more than one destination. It would be possible to do that right alongside accelerated growth of my chocolate company. That’s scale!  Reverse scale, on the other hand, says, “This is it.” Today, right here, right now. This student, this cocoa farmer, this meal, this village. That’s all I really possess. There’s a lot of power in that. I know I’d lose these important human connections if I were managing, delegating, and looking at spreadsheets instead of practicing this discipline of reverse scale. It is this practice that allows me, at times, to experience my True Self as Thomas Merton calls it.

Back to the high school students I’ll be traveling with on Monday. When we arrive in remote rural Tanzania our students will be embraced by the village farmers as “members of the family” because we’ve been their partners for nearly a decade. We have a packed schedule of “doing” but have left ample time for “being.” In the coming days I will remain a student too as we’re welcomed by farmers who practice radical hospitality.

Go Low

Let’s go low. In my book I call it “reverse scale” and you can read all about it, the temptations of scale luring us from all sides, and why we might want to consider alternatives to “grow or die.” You have an idea? Everyone wants to know “will it scale?” suggesting that an answer in the negative diminishes its value. I suggest turning the scale pyramid upside down and propose that we ask ourselves “will this project or idea help just one person, or perhaps will it change me?” What do I mean by “go low”? You’ll see in the next paragraph. I try to use reverse scale to keep me tethered to my vocation. My trip this past week in the Philippines sourcing our cocoa beans is an example and one I would add to others in the book. I use this practice to return to my true self, to reorient my soul and point it in the right direction. Toward meaningful work. 

The setup to my story is best illustrated in two of my Facebook posts.

Facebook Post – January 2016 -One final picture from my trip this past week to Davao: this church. It’s across the road from one of the small cocoa farms we work with. Dirt floor, wooden benches, drum set, guitar and an amp. The poverty surrounding the church would break your heart. It did mine. I’ve probably seen 100 churches like this. Without fail, I am always moved when I step inside. No exception this week. Something happened inside the church and I will write about in greater detail later. Jesuit Priest and author Father Greg Boyle talks about meeting Jesus in “low places.” This place was one of those and I’m thankful to have experienced it.

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The church in 2016
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Justin and his sister in the church – 2016

That’s what I mean by “go low.” I remind myself to seek out the low places so I can have the greatest chance of encountering the Divine.

Facebook Post – January 2017 – Back from Davao with one final post . . . His name is Justin. The little boy in the center holding the ball. He will be 4 in September. I met him last year on my trip to Davao. I’ve seen a lot of poverty over the years up close and personal here at home and abroad. There are times, albeit fewer than you’d imagine, when someone catches your eye and breaks your heart. One reason that it doesn’t happen more frequently is that I might just be a heap of tears on the ground if I let it penetrate me more often. So I see tragedy and move on. Not with Justin. He lives across the street from a farmer where we buy beans. I happened to stop at a tiny church about 20 feet from his “house” last year. I saw him when I got out of the truck. Justin had a distended belly, bulging eyes, a gunky runny nose, no clothes on, no parent around just siblings. He was clearly sick and extremely malnourished. For some mysterious reason he looked at me and in a split second I connected with him. A few minutes later I was in the nearby empty bamboo church with a dirt floor and turned around and there he was sitting on the pew with his sister. It kind of freaked me out. It was almost as if he just appeared there. I went about my business touring the farm across the road but could not get him out of my mind.

One of my hosts, Mimi, agreed to look in on him for me and help me. I came home and my friend Dr. John Waites  did a Skype “exam” of Justin. It was made possible by Mimi bringing Justin and mom to a decent internet connection. We then bought him a bunch of fortified infant formula which mom agreed to make sure he received. One of our employees, Dina, was traveling home to Davao the following month. She brought him a ton of Dr. Kerri Mcdaniel Miller‘s wonderful re:iimmune product. Mimi continued to check on him and he was improving.

I brought him a little t-shirt and plastic ball and more infant formula. He loved that little ball and would not let it go. The bottom line is that he is much improved. It’s true that he is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of children, within a few mile radius in the same circumstance. So why him, why only help him? Well, the only thing I can say is that he looked at me and somehow pierced my heart unlike anyone else on any of my other trips. In some ways, upon reflection, I think it was God looking at me through Justin’s eyes.

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Justin and his siblings during my 2017 visit 

I saw him for a 3rd time this past week. He lives just a couple of miles from Baguio Central Elementary where our school lunch program will be starting its 3rd year soon. It’s also just a few minutes away from our cocoa bean fermentation and drying facility. One tiny experience in 2016 in this remote place on the planet has provided me with a thread that I can hold on to and use to keep coming back to sew one more stitch in the patch of who I am, my true self.

Justin continues to improve. There are still some health issues but without a doubt he’s getting better and better. I brought him a few gifts this week that I am sure he will share. Also bought him some more fortified milk.

A common way to see this story is the almost unbearable recognition that the destitute poverty in this place is so overwhelming that the insurmountability of it leaves us paralyzed. We think to ourselves “I want to do something, but it’s too much” and defeated we do nothing. We conclude that it’s so desperate that helping one person might even be wrong because “what about the others?” You see all of Justin’s siblings in the photo and they are just as deserving of any tiny help I might offer.

Remember, I have not purchased food for life for Justin, I did not find his family a new house, I did not offer to pay for his college, I did not do anything monumental. What I did do is visit him three years in a row after his eyes locked on to my heart. In doing this little thing year after year I am sending this message to Justin and perhaps his family: I see you, I care about you.

Jean Vanier, Catholic theologian, author, and founder of L’Arche, the international federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks for people who have intellectual disabilities, would have something to say about this. He would say that in the face of this sorrow we can go deeper within ourselves in silence and solitude to become men and women of peace. In other words, these real life human experiences cause us to deepen our own interior lives which bring about change in us. He points out that in the seeming hopelessness we can help just one person and remind ourselves that the strong need the weak so we can see our own poverty. So we can become human. And “help” may mean simply listening with full presence. Vanier would say that in helping the Justins of this life we are little lamps together forming a brighter glow in community with thousands of others doing the same thing. That is true sustainability.

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Justin this past week – January 2018

Near the end of our visit, out of the blue, Justin’s mother asked us if we could help her become a cocoa farmer. She has no job now and really no way to support her family. She has access to land, she said, as an Indigenous Person, and seedlings. Our lead farmer partner, Peter, was with us and he gave her his word that he would assist her in this goal. Who knows where this will lead but rest assured I will follow up and see what I can do to help in her endeavor.

  • Who is your Justin?
  • Can you think of a time when you talked yourself out of an idea because it was not “big enough” in the eyes of our turbocharged culture of grow or die?
  • Can you imagine how a thread of reverse scale in your life can keep you tethered to your vocation, the thing that called you to the work you loved in the first place?
  • Where are the low places you can intentionally go to seek out these tethers?

In a mashup of Boyle and Vanier I say we can find humanity and divinity in the low places of relationships, pain, sorrow, loneliness, poverty, regardless of religion. This is the place where we can see our true selves. It’s something we return to again and again throughout our lives not mistaking these encounters as the destination. No, they are only glimpses that give us the reminder “Oh, I see. This is who I am.”