A Balancing Act

I like to think I have inherited some of my father’s finest qualities. His ability to trim a beard evenly, belief in the value of the metric system and appreciation for Steely Dan come to mind.

One trait that has been lost on me, however, is my dad’s scientific nature. A dentist by trade and Back to the Future’s Doc Brown at heart, Tim Harper, D.D.S. is endlessly curious about the nature of all that is best explained by biology, chemistry and physics. While I, like the narrator of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, might be inclined to eternally wonder exactly what role stars play in our solar system, my dad correctly identifies them as the old-as-time collections of gas that they are. Once when I was having trouble getting my printer to work, my dad suggested using the scientific method to solve the problem. As I started to laugh, I looked up, saw the earnest expression on his face and realized he was not kidding.

A small part of me has always felt guilty for not pursuing a career in a science-based field. While my father has always insisted he wanted my brothers and I to do whatever we felt called to, I think he secretly would have been thrilled had I expressed a desire to become an anaesthesiologist or, better yet, an orthodontist.

Thus, I was excited to learn that a group of medical volunteers from the U.S. would be coming to Andahuaylillas to run a free clinic during Holy Week. Because most of the doctors and nurses spoke little to no Spanish, my fellow JV’s and I were asked to serve as their translators. This was fantastic news; as far as I am concerned, the closest thing to prescribing someone medicine for chronic headaches is being the person who tells them they have just been prescribed medicine for chronic headaches.

I worked with a doctor named Nitesh. A medical student in Florida who will soon be starting his residency in Alabama, Dr. Nitesh is a nice guy who generously made a point of giving cookies to the Peruvian kids who came to see us. Despite this kindness, he did not seem to mind that the English-Spanish language barrier meant I was the one who had to express sympathy and support to the patients who were having the most difficulty in their lives. If we had been in Lethal Weapon, Nitesh definitely would have been the hard-nosed Danny Glover character.

I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the work. It was reasonable to assume most of our patients had not visited a doctor in quite some time, so it was gratifying to be in a position to help them attend to problems that had been unaddressed for so long.

Moreover, I actually picked up some useful knowledge about medicine, diseases and the human body. Many of our patients were suffering from the same ailments, so after a while, I knew exactly what to advise someone to do when they complained of having a burning sensation in their mouth or said their head felt like it was spinning when they were lying in bed. Dr. Nitesh’s diagnoses also made me realize that since my arrival in Peru, I have probably had some combination of acid reflux, gastritis and stomach parasites.

Like all things that cannot appease my short attention span, however, the work began to wear on me. At the end of each day, I was drained—mentally from trying to explain medical concepts I did not fully understand in Spanish and emotionally from realizing just how hard life is for some of the townspeople in Andahuaylillas.

While it was a lot of fun getting to know the doctors, spending time with them after work also felt strange. As a fellow North American, I was in many ways at home interacting with them socially. But four months’ separation from the U.S. also made me realize the ways in which I have become accustomed to my new Peruvian friends and lifestyle.

For example, on the last night of the volunteers’ visit, Andahuaylillas’s mayor treated all of us to a delicious meal made by the women whom some of us JV’s work with at the parish cafeteria. As we began to eat a dinner that was far nicer than anything I could have asked for, I found myself wishing I could go into the kitchen and talk with these women who I now consider friends more than chefs.

Furthermore, because the doctors were visiting during Holy Week, there were a number of non-medical activities to attend to within Andahuaylillas—carrying candles for a parade through the streets on Monday, playing percussion for a Good Friday procession, picking and organizing flowers to be decorated on the church floor and playing guitar on Holy Thursday. Balancing my time between the medical and Holy Week activities led to my feeling an unexpected conflict between my lifelong identity as a North American and my newer identity as a volunteer living in Peru.

The church floor decorated with the flowers we picked.

The week ended with a 4 a.m. Easter vigil, the idea being to celebrate the Son rising as the sun was rising. Get it?

By the time it was over, I was completely exhausted; I was happy to have met and worked with the medical volunteers yet ready to return to my teaching schedule at Fe y Alegria, one of the high schools in Andahuaylillas.

After the doctors left and our JVC community caught up on sleep, we had our weekly spirituality morning, during which we decided to reflect on what Holy Week had meant to us.

I thought about the Good Friday procession, in which a statue of Jesus’s body was placed in a glass casket and carried through the streets for four hours. I recalled waking up at 3:45 in the morning to hike up a mountain and pick flowers for the church.

But then I began to consider the presence of the medical volunteers. I had already pondered what their coming meant to me in a general sense, but was there any significance to their having visited during Holy Week?

And then I realized one of the central themes of Holy Week: contrast. From beginning to end, Holy Week contains both the most exuberant highs and the most crushing lows. On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered town as a king; less than a week later, He was executed as a criminal. On Holy Thursday, He shared the last meal of His life with his closest friends; hours later, those same friends abandoned, denied and betrayed Him.

The idea of paradox was evident in the way Andahuaylillas celebrates Holy Week—the solemn processions were carried out amidst beautiful and vivid street decorations, and the most somber vigil was preceded by a 12-course feast.

They were also apparent, however, in the inconsistencies we JV’s experienced throughout our week. In a small way, forgetting which language I was supposed to be speaking, jumping back and forth between U.S. and Peruvian social norms and shifting between rapid, timely and Western-oriented medical work and South America’s slower, less-rigid way of being helped me to feel more connected to the roller coaster ride Jesus and His disciples were on during Holy Week.

To be clear, I am not trying to suggest that what I experienced during my Holy Week holds a candle to what Jesus experienced during His. I am simply acknowledging how common it is for any and every person to feel a clash between the different roles they play in life. In the case of my fellow JV’s and I, we experience this as North American volunteers living in a foreign country. How do we settle the incongruencies between the lives we lived before and the lives now ahead of us, particularly when we are presented with both at the same time?

I do not know how to answer this question. But I think we can learn something from Jesus, who spent the duration of His life holding two very distinct, seemingly-incompatible existences at hand—one exemplified by what He had inherited from His father/mother and the other characterized by humanity’s humility. His bringing the two together is what gives us reason to celebrate Holy Week in the first place.

It can also serve as a reminder of the need to let the competing influences and dispositions in our lives coexist. Whether we are trying to resolve a parent’s science-mindedness with our more left-brain-oriented way of seeing things or reconcile U.S. norms with the new ways other cultures have taught us to live and be in the world, life will always be a balancing act. And though the colliding of our different worlds may sometimes leave us confused, it also puts us in good company—with Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana, with each other and with Christ.


About brianharperu

A recent Marquette University graduate who inexplicably finds himself living and working as a Jesuit Volunteer in Peru, Brian enjoys writing, learning new musical instruments, imagining himself to be a better athlete than he is, eating pancakes and voting as part of his civic duty.
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