Who Will We Choose to Be? Creating a better world on the other side of COVID-19
Reflections on the COVID-19 crisis by Haiti Partners Director, John Engle
As many of you know, I’m among the people in the world who has for decades straddled living in the world’s most rich and powerful country—the United States—and one of the financially poorest countries, Haiti. Aside from a year in France, I’ve spent most of my adult life living and working in Haiti.
My wife Merline Engle and kids and I lived through Haiti’s 2010 devastating earthquake, which killed more than 100,000 people. The death and destruction were horrific. There was a dystopian feel: weeks without electricity (for those who had it in the first place), no phone service, shortages of food and water, sidewalks scattered with injured people and even corpses, huge crowds outside of hospitals and clinics, makeshift shelters going up everywhere there was space, regular aftershock tremors. Our children, who were ages 2 and 4 then, both got pneumonia. We had slept outside with dozens of others for days in the cold damp air of Haiti’s mountains. Our living conditions were not good and it was a highly stressful time but we felt called to stay and be in solidarity with our Haitian brothers and sisters. We opted to not evacuate on one of the US military planes taking Americans back to the US.
Eventually, as the dust started to settle, we began to reevaluate our priorities as a family and as a non-profit devoted to improving education in Haiti. With so much devastation around us, we and the members of our small rural community began to engage with each other in imagining something life-affirming that might come out of the horror. We met regularly to build a vision together. What our community wanted was education. They determined that this was the best way to a brighter future: an education for their children, an education for themselves, a way out of poverty. In retrospect, it was part of a healing process. I don’t think any of us were conscious at the time the importance of our coming together to reflect and to dream.
Today, inspired by our community’s vision and hard work along with the help of many supporters, we have a Pre-K-5th grade school, The Children’s Academy, with plans to add a grade annually right up to Haiti’s Philo, or 13th grade. Not only are we educating 230 children who would never have had access to school, but we have built an innovative education model that is a beacon for other schools in Haiti, for the Haitian Ministry of Education, and for other communities in the Global South. We are a renewed community with new hope and a sense of empowerment where children: receive quality education from trained, loving teachers, in traditional subjects as well as permaculture gardening, and where parents are fully engaged in all aspects of school community life, from working on the hand papermaking social business, and even more community members are involved in, adult education programs. More than 500 people now take part in Village Savings and Loans groups, most of whom had never had access to the formal banking system. We would have never thought it possible before the earthquake, but the crisis we experienced together created space for new possibilities. It bound us as a community and sparked conversations and ideas that gave way to innovation and change.
Now, 10 years later, Merline and I are trying to emotionally and spiritually prepare for hundreds of thousands if not millions around the globe dying to COVID-19, combined with suffering and poverty even worse than we’ve previously known. Like many, we are putting our wills in order and having serious conversations with our children, now 12 and 14 years old. We think of our community and our schools in Haiti, of our family and co-workers, of our students and their families. Who among us might be victims? What will the lives be like for those who survive? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Imagining what could happen can be crushing to the soul.
We also have hope amidst the despair. Might the COVID-19 crucible be our opportunity to come together as a world community to create a wiser, more loving, more conscious society? Might this global crisis inspire us to evolve in unimagined ways? Never before has everyone on the planet worked with each other in such a collaborative way to fight a common enemy. While many of the most vulnerable people are left behind in accessing technology, vast numbers are able to be connected through remote video conferencing and access learning resources that are now afforded. Now could be the time for deeper reflection, soul searching and gaining clarity that leads to fully engaging our collective imagination to address the most pressing problems of our time.
Instead of feeling paralyzed by hopelessness right now, I want to imagine that we’re going to allow this crisis to open our hearts and minds to life’s deepest questions. I believe that many of us will feel led to rethink our values and re-evaluate what brings us meaning, a sense of purpose and even fulfillment. COVID-19 is sounding the alarm of humanity’s vulnerability. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, writes: “In times of crisis, people reach for meaning. Meaning is strength. Our survival may depend on our seeking and finding it.”
Countless studies conclude that having a sense of purpose and being a part of something greater than ourselves contributes significantly to a sense of well-being. We need, more than ever before, people around the globe committing to causes that are bigger than ourselves. The change that’s happening within us, as we’re open to rethinking who we are and what our lives are about, is the first step in changing our relationships, our organizations, our communities, our countries and our world.
The challenges before us are monumental: climate change, large-scale conflict and wars, inequality, poverty, to name a few. But it all starts in our hearts. Who will we choose to be as the COVID-19 dust settles? What world will we choose to create together on the other side of COVID-19?
What do you dream for humanity–and for your local community–and what role will you play in bringing this dream to reality? I invite you to add your comments here.