Honor Yourself with Compassion

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So many emotions were running through me. I was on a happy high. We just finished our last day of training and earlier that day, we completed a Walmart run to grab last minute odds and ends before our trips aboard and of course my $17 purchase didn’t seem like it would be enough. We fellows planned to have a ‘last supper’ of sorts to send Megan and I off to Liberia for the year.

After dinner was finished, glass of wine in hand, I walked out to the porch to check up with Hope. Her “Hey friend!” comforted my heart. I followed her to the dock at the McKnight homestead with Carrie in tow and we looked at the stars. Shortly after laying there, we grabbed all the other fellows to see say1this spectacular site.

It seemed like the sky was filled with an infinite amount of stars. Each one shining as bright as the one next to it. The Milky Way foamy in its path. The North Star lighting our way and grounding us in the moment. I had never seen or experienced something more beautiful. Everyone was silent. We were all witnessing the earth in its full unbridled beauty, God’s magnificent gift and, this thing that brought us all together. Silent streams of tears lined my face as Hope squeezed my hand. And at the moment when I felt immense joy, but I also felt complete and utter fear. Would I be able to feel this feeling of grounding and security in my new home that I once felt before leaving aboard? How could I acclimate to such a climate that was so different than my own? I used to think I was so adaptable; you could put me anywhere and I would concur. My view on my adaptability changed when I moved aboard to Liberia.

Fast forward a couple months and now I am in a place so different then my own. My heart is heavier now. Understanding the effects of a civil war that just recently ended just over a decade ago, is not something that everyone can say that they can lived firsthand and many times throughout my time here so far, I have seen how even fourteen years later, the country still carries the burden of that war. For a few weeks, I found myself allowing that sadness and hardship of the country muddle its way into me so deep that I couldn’t understand whether or not I was sad because I was truly sad or because I was facing a set of challenges that we bigger than me and beyond my control to fix. But when I felt the most down, the most incredible things happened.

Happiness. At the oddest of times.

I reflect on one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite people reminding me that happiness shows up in many different forms, you just need to know where to find it. “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” -Albus Dumbledore

Like the moment I open my eyes from a nights rest from under my mosquito protected bed net, the first thing I see is the sight of tropical beauty.

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Or when I take a walk to visit my friend Maryam, a Peace Corps volunteer in a neighboring village, the sight of ruined beauty. When I pass through town, the sun seems to hit the building at just the right angle, making me smile in appreciation.

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And when I arrive at my friend’s house, the children that live close by, greet me with smiles and hugs, yelling “Aunty Vanna!”, filling my heart with so much joy. And when I allow them to plait my hair they leave me with knots that make me cringe, as I read a children’s book to the others.

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On Fridays, when I visit the market, the first woman I visit is Betty, my counterpart’s sister whom has claimed me as her sister. She told all of the market woman nearby that “when they see her sister with the “thing” in her nose (referring to my nose ring), to “give her the best food for the best price.” Every Friday when I see her, she greets me with a smile and a strong, loving hug, that only a mother can give.

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And when the rainstorm comes, my ability to just sit and appreciate it in all of it glory, allowing the rain to wash away my worries and stress.

And lastly, this evening, happiness came when I sat on my porch chair with my neighbor Curly. We discussed the perils of Liberia, the upcoming election, our hopeful aspirations for the house garden, and how to get our students to be more engaged in the classroom while combating an education system based on rote memorization. During the conversation, she expressed her gratitude of my presence, saying “I feel in my heart that you are here to help. You are friendly and kind. Based on what you are doing (she points to the soon-to-be garden area), you are doing things to help. I appreciate that. Yeah, I feel that.” She left me humbled and speechless, as we went inside for the night.

Happiness has an odd way of showing up when you need it the most. I guess subconsciously, happiness was one of my expectations for myself. To always be happy or content even in the hardest times because that’s who I thought I should be, that’s what people knew me to be.

Often times, when we set out to do something that we are passionate about, great expectation seems to follow. We expect that every step of the journey will be glorious, glamorous, and feel-good. We expect ourselves to not feel the effects of the environment we are in and we force ourselves to put on a show of happiness. Everyone who asks us about our experience, receives “Great!” and “Everything is good!” because we can’t describe the feelings that seem to come when we reflect on the hardship we encounter. And because we don’t want to disappoint those most proud of us, we keep the facade going to honor them, to honor the sacrifices made in our stead.

What I didn’t realize is how taxing this charade could be on my emotional being. It reminded me how important it is practice self-care.

So as I gleefully listen to a song that puts me in a good mood without fail (Maggie Rogers – Alaska) I make a vow to myself. From this day forward, I vow to live with more compassion for myself and my struggle. Not forcing myself to be okay when I am not and knowing ‘it is okay to not be okay’.

I take a vow to honor my self-care practice like morning meditations, evening yoga sessions, hanging positive affirmations around my house that make me feel good and dancing around my house blasting my favorite songs so that I can continue to be the best me; so that I can continue to do the job I set out to do.

Most importantly, I vow to take the happiness as it comes and salute it with gratitude. Allowing those little moments in my new normal to consume me and hugging my hardships with compassion and love when needed. 

Sayvanna Sfabian received a bachelors degree in Animal Science from New York State College, Cobleskill and a masters in Agricultural Education from Cornell University. Before becoming an AgriCorps Fellow, Sayvanna spent several summers working on her family’s farm in the Dominican Republic.

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