“Every act of love is an act of peace, no matter how small:” Summer of Service 2016 Reflection from Kokata, India

 

Every act of love is an act of peace, no matter how small.

A few days into my summer of service trip, my phone lit up with a CNN update, “Multiple explosions rip through Syria and Yemen. 48 dead.” A few days later, “4 killed by Islamist attackers in Kazakhstan. Weeks later, “53 dead in deadliest mass shooting in American history.” Next, attacks in Turkey. Then, in the final days of my trip, attacks in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi-Indian border was only 43 miles from Kolkata, and after these attacks, there was an undeniable tension in the convent as sisters made daily warnings to be careful and make sensible decisions. Though I had never been geographically this close to acts of such violence, I grew up with 24-hour coverage of violence and murders often committed under the pretense of religion. The endless montage of violence and hate that is always only a click away often leaves me dealing with periodic bouts of hopelessness and helplessness. I often feel that despite our best attempts at alleviating suffering, we simply cannot make a significant difference. Those that are performing acts of hatred and violence seem so much louder and impactful than those who set out to make the world better.

Those feelings of helplessness can be overwhelming at times, and I found that they were, especially during my summer of service. As an unskilled biology student, I often questioned what I could even bring to these countries. In India specifically, a country populated by a billion people, can another unskilled worker, who does not even speak the local language, be of any value? I cannot pretend that I figured out the answer to that question, but I can say that it took a summer, spent among Sisters serving God and emulating Saint Teresa, to realize the truth in Saint Teresa’s words: “every act of love is a work of peace, no matter how small.” We may not have the power to end terrorism, poverty, or inequality, but we have the power to love, which is truly our privilege.

In Kolkata, I spent my mornings working in a medical dispensary in Nirmala Shishu Bhavan (Sanskrit for “Home of the Babies”), where I filled prescriptions for the “poorest of the poor.” I would often see those who had waited long hours at the dispensary living on the streets after my morning shift concluded. Though my job did not give me the chance to interact with those I was serving, a few saw me on the street, and in broken English, they told me that they were thankful for my help. Moments as insignificant as being recognized in spite of serving from behind the curtains showed me the truth in Saint Teresa’s words; these were not merely small acts of love.

I spent my afternoons working in Daya Dan (Sanskrit for “Gift of Compassion”), a home for children with disabilities. I worked on the ground floor, which housed boys ranging from six to twenty-one years old. Despite being perpetually stressed, covered in urine, or being yelled at by mashis (Bengali for aunt), I can definitively say that I could happily spend the rest of my life working in this home. I spend a lot of time that I should be using to study (or write this reflection) instead dreaming of being able to go back.  In six of the fastest weeks of my life, Daya Dan became my favorite place in the entire world, surpassing my childhood home and even Disney World. When I walked out of Daya Dan for the last time, I was fighting back the tears on the auto-rickshaw ride back to Hotel Heaven. I cried because I knew that every time I left (both daily and finally), the children remained behind. I cried because though they had sisters and mashis, they didn’t have parents to call their own and who loved them unconditionally. When the boys became too aggressive or large for the sisters, they were promptly sent to a home run by Brothers of Charity. I understand why, but it still breaks my heart because the love they receive is conditional. I cried because even channeling all the empathy I could gather, I knew that I could never truly understand their pain and suffering. I still feel completely and utterly at a loss when I think about the complexity of problems that has resulted in their suffering, and it makes me feel powerless.

Hindus believe that our suffering is due to negative karma accumulated in our past lives; if we live a holy and meaningful life, however, we can accumulate positive karma. Positive karma will allow us to improve our soul’s next life until we finally break the cycle of reincarnation, attain salvation, and are finally at peace. On the one hand, the Hindu cycle of life and death gives me solace knowing that these children may have another chance at a better life. On the other hand, despite this chance at redemption, I still cannot help feel heartbroken that these beautiful children of God have to wait an entire lifetime for the opportunity to come.

My inner-conflict should not be confused with any negative feelings towards my summer of service. What I gained from this experience is immeasurable and almost inexplicable. This final reflection does not even begin to summarize my time in Kolkata. I have never felt as sure about the underlying values that I use to guide my life as I do now. My experiences attending Catholic Masses, visiting Hindu and Jain temples, and walking past streets full of men kneeling before a mosque all deepened my understanding of the necessity of religion.  Prior to my summer of service, I did often feel alienated from religion, especially in its extreme forms. But my time in India, with its admirable degree of religious diversity, showed me the glory that is religion. As Saint Teresa said, “Religion is meant to be a work of love. Therefore, it should not divide us and destroy the peace and unity. Let us use religion to help us become one heart full of love in the heart of God. By loving one another, we will fulfill the reason for our creation- to love and be loved.” Religion not only succeeds but flourishes when it accomplishes those sentiments.

In spite of the incessant street noise, the honking, and the generally unsanitary conditions, I have never felt as at peace as I felt in India. I owe that inner-peace to the inspiring soul, Saint Teresa. Her secular wisdom resonated with me, and I felt compelled by her call to serve. Though there is still an element of uncertainty in my future goals, my summer of service showed me where I want to direct my efforts; this may explain the clarity and peace I felt. Surrounded by many passionate souls (both volunteers and sisters) in India, I learned a great deal more about my own personal beliefs on the human conditions of vulnerability and gratefulness.

As an unskilled volunteer at Daya Dan, I accepted the fact that the most we can offer is the ability to help socialize the children. Even in that aspect, I really question whether we did more harm than good. In the first week of service, Kevin and I jokingly complained to each other that the children would “give us nothing.” That did not stop us from trying to break down their hard exteriors, but becoming vulnerable and opening up for those children is more than just a simple matter of placing trust in a friendship. For them, it meant putting their hearts on the line just to be abandoned again and again. I understood why they would not want to open up to every volunteer that walked through the door. I could not fault them for trying to minimize the pain in their life; they already hurt so much.

In the final weeks of my trip, 8-year-old Rohit would put three fingers up and laugh when he saw me. It was our “inside joke,” except it was not as funny to me as it was to him. His three fingers referred to his three best-friends: me, Kevin, and another volunteer. He laughed when I gasped in reaction to his gesture, but behind my silly exaggerated expressions of honor, I was crying inside. We build them up just to tear them down when we leave and they remain. Best friends are not supposed to come into your life and then leave without a trace, which is what I would be doing in the next few weeks. I still wonder: in terms of socialization, what have we really accomplished? They may have moved on faster than I have, and I am just an afterthought to Rohit, who probably has another best friend volunteer. At first, I thought that Rohit’s ability to make himself vulnerable while knowing that we would inevitably leave him was strange. Why would he do that to himself? I later realized that at Daya Dan, a true sense of peace and happiness was evident in the children who were willing to make themselves vulnerable. Given their situation, their ability to open themselves up and love as unconditionally as they did was inspiring. Even though I passionately believe in the strength of making ourselves vulnerable, I struggle with it. That vulnerability, however, is the key to forming beautiful meaningful relationships. Just as Rohit did even while knowing that Kevin and I would most likely leave him, and as all the volunteers had in the past, I aspire to make myself vulnerable to those around me. We should not let our fear of rejection or fear of being hurt stop us from forming those deep connections that give our life meaning.

In addition to vulnerability, I spent a lot of time thinking about gratefulness. On the one hand, acknowledging my privilege made me acknowledge the gross inequality that exists in this world, leaving me feeling helpless and disheartened yet again. On the other hand, I felt like I could truly better appreciate my life by knowing that it was truly a blessing, simply a stream of fortunate, random events that I had very little say in. I did not choose to be born to parents who chose to immigrate to the US, giving me more opportunities than many other Indians. I did not choose what caste my ancestors came from, which, though a useless tidbit of information I know about myself, invariably shaped the opportunities my ancestors had and thus the opportunities that I now have. This summer, and especially the time that I spent at Daya Dan, showed me that my success has been due in large part to the privileges that I was born with and did not work for. Sure, I’ve worked extremely hard throughout my school years, but it was purely by chance that my parents considered education to be their number one priority in life. It is very easy to feel guilty for the privileges that I have, and to be honest, I often do feel guilty. I am still working on handling that, but I think the only thing that I can do is to serve those around me who have not had the same privileges that I have had.

Despite having been to India more times than I recall, it was not without Saint Teresa’s guidance, love, and vision of India that I wholeheartedly opened my eyes to the beauty that is India. During this visit, I truly fell in love with the land of my ancestors. My air conditioned flats and cars shielded me from the horrific sights and smells in the past, but they were unavoidable this time. I lived more like a local that I ever have in my prior visits. I walked the streets at night, used public transportation, and drank delicious chai off the streets, all things that my grandparents would never allow. I am aware that the privileged life I live is not due to my actions but due to the actions of my collective ancestry. For that, I have a deep desire to pay homage to my ancestors by serving the country that shaped them. I hope that I have the privilege to continue serving in India, while also serving in the United States, as a physician. I know that I will never forget this experience. It will intersect my views on vulnerability and the human condition with my life as a student for the next few years and as a practicing physician after.

Priyanka Kolli
Siena College Class of 2017, Albany Medical College Class of 2021

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