By Andrew Leslie Durkin (’07), Yonkers, N.Y.
Major: Classical studies
In my undergraduate career, there were few things more important to me than my service experiences in Calcutta, India. This Volunteer Service Corps service trip began in 1994 with Jessica Davies, a student who was personally invited by Mother Teresa to work alongside her serving the poorest of the poor in the streets of Calcutta. This service experience embodies Wake Forest’s motto, Pro Humanitate, calling each of us to step out of ourselves-out of our comfort zones-and to look beyond our own needs in caring for those dying and abandoned.
Calcutta is unlike any place I have ever seen. Words vivid enough to accurately depict it do not exist. There are few things about that city which are universally relatable. It is simply overwhelming. At first, everything about the experience-the city, our meager living conditions and even the service work itself-made me uncomfortable. I was asked to do things I never before saw myself doing. I was constantly surrounded by the harsh reality of the lives of the people of Calcutta.
Let me tell a short account to put an image in your mind. There was a mother who lived on the street just outside of the hospice where I volunteered. She had two children, both younger than five. The children wore no clothes, and they were often covered with mud. Each day as I passed them, they would look at me and smile and want to shake my hand. On one particular day, I was greeted by one of the smiling children as she squatted over a storm drain and defecated into it. Her brother danced happily around their mother who had just skinned a mouse, preparing it to be cooked for the afternoon meal.
I couldn’t bear to justify my own reality living here in the most wealthy country in the world. For the first time in my life, I felt truly homesick.
Nearing the trip’s midway point, I examined the situation and realized that I was consciously forfeiting the opportunity to allow the experience to affect me. My mind was trying to keep my heart concealed, protecting it from the grizzly reality which surrounded me. I struggled through the experience, and the only window of hope I held onto was thoughts of leaving India.
At nearly the same time as this realization struck me, I was confronted with an emotionally charged situation. On afternoon, I sat meekly in thought as a man was brought in off the street. He was obviously very close to death. From a few feet away, I watched as nurses, nuns and volunteers scurried about trying to care for him and make him more comfortable. I was taken aback, and the crying pains began to crawl up my throat. At that moment, my mind was no longer in control, and my heart began to bear the immensity of the situation. I watched as this man struggled for each breath. Tears were now pouring forth and wetting my shirt. At once, my self-righteousness was thrown aside, and I went over to his bed. My heart was racing and my body trembling. I was absolutely terrified because I was venturing out of my comfort zone. I sat by his side and held his hand. For a few intense seconds, our eyes focused in on each other’s. Amidst all of the commotion and chaos, the peace in his eyes settled me. We were two people of different cultures, religions and languages-indeed we came from different words. Yet, for a moment, he spoke to me. The fear of death was absent from his eyes, and his strength gave me courage.
Sitting there, I realized that we shared one thing-our humanness-the fact that we have souls. In that instant, I felt connected to this man in a way that I have never felt connected to anyone else before or since. It was as if our very hearts were speaking to one another. As I sat there, he allowed me to be a part of his most intimate experience. I held his hand as he passed away. He left me with a changed outlook about the trip and about my life. My discomfort was not at all in vain. Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone to be affected in a meaningful way. You need to feel pants-wetting fear to realize how wonderful freedom from fear actually is.
I began to understand why I was in Calcutta. My humanness, my essence and, indeed, everyone’s humanness is incredibly powerful. Your presence can affect others in ways you never could have dreamed. Surely this dying man never knew that he would have such a lasting impact on me minutes before he died. And I never thought that the image of a dying man in India would bring me so much peace.
We all share in humanness. And to truly be fulfilled, we must expose our essence to others. Our culture has conditioned us to hide who we really are and pretend to be what we want others to think we are. Opening our hearts is scary. But it is just the type of fear that has the power to change us and continue to make us better people.
I present this story to illustrate what I truly believe. That there is no one in this world who is more or less necessary and that everyone carries an equal humanity, no matter how different we all might be. Never underestimate the impact that you can have on any person. When language, region, culture and creed separate us, our shared humanness, our soul, the essence that gives each of us life, maintains our unity.