Today would have been Morrie Schwartz’s 99th Birthday. If you’ve read my book you know that Morrie and his book had a powerful influence in my life. Instead of pulling one of my favorite quotes from his book (and there are many) I decided to tell a story in honor of Morrie and one that I think he’d like. He was one of my teachers, albeit through his book, and so my story is about students.
Last Saturday we had our orientation meeting for our brand new Askinosie Chocolate University Class of 2018. They are super smart, competitive, accomplished local juniors and seniors in high school. About half of our students are on full scholarship which means we raise the money for them to participate. The other half can pay on their own because their parents have the money. These students will meet with us periodically over the coming Spring. Then they’ll spend a week together this July in the Drury University dorms near our factory getting to know each other, studying our business model, learning about cocoa beans and chocolate, a little Tanzanian culture, language and history. They will go home and pack and meet us at the airport and we’ll travel to Tanzania to meet our farmer partners in an adventure of a lifetime. I have been doing this since we started the program in 2009. It fits within our local elementary, middle and high school projects.
Back to the orientation meeting with our somewhat nervous, bright-eyed students and their parents. We covered the practical need to know things like passports, visas, food, malaria, air travel, forms and medical histories. Then it was my turn to explain why we are going on this trip to begin with: business. The business of buying cocoa beans and profit sharing with farmers. I explained the things they might see, smell, taste, and experience. I showed a few pictures of beautiful lake Nyasa and the village, the farmers, the children.
I explained that they will see striking images of joy and sorrow side by side. I looked at each of our students and said “I am sure that your hearts will break, some of you a little and some of you a lot. If not then we have not done our job. It’s my hope that your heart will break not because of the poverty that you see in the people of Africa but because of the poverty you see in yourself.” I challenged our students to consider that (almost) anyone can travel to Africa, observe terrible things and feel sad. Some of it IS sad but not all it and some is both joyful and sad at the same time. But not all of us can absorb the experience, feel the sadness, feel the joy and recognize the depths of our own malnourishment.
Our students more often than not come into this experience earnestly wanting to “help the people of Africa” until the blindfolds are removed and they see that it’s not their job. Their job is to let their hearts break because as Leonard Cohen would say “that’s how the light gets in.”
Here’s the lesson for me: I dont need to travel halfway around the world to see this. I can let the light in right here, right now.