If you look up the word “spiritual” in the Oxford Dictionary, you’ll read that the word is related to or affecting the human spirit or soul, as opposed to material or physical things or, more generally, relating to religion or religious beliefs.
But spirituality is much more than that, isn’t it? It involves a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience – something that touches us all.
Many years ago, I read a book by Victor Frankl called “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Written in 1946, it chronicles Frankl’s experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II. He approached this situation with a method of identifying a purpose in life – something to feel positively about – then immersing himself in imagining that outcome.
Frankl wrote that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. From his own experiences, he concluded that a prisoner's psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life but also from the freedom of choice he always has, even in severe suffering. The inner-hold a prisoner keeps on his spiritual self relies on having a hope in the future. Once a prisoner loses that hope, he is doomed.
So, what the heck does all this have to do with the usual stuff I write about on leadership and learning agility?
As I get older, my spirituality plays a larger role in my life. At the end of the Sunday service at my church, the minister tells the congregation that we go nowhere by accident – our Higher Power has a reason for our being there. I heard and accepted that message and now pay greater attention to where I am and the people and conditions around me.
I was particularly aware when I was on my trip earlier this year from Cape Town to Singapore. The people in many of the places I visited could be described from a materialistic perspective as the “have nots.” Yet, there was something so serene about who these people were and the natural order in their lives, that it was inspiring.
Two days in Rangoon, Myanmar really stood out to me. We spent the morning touring Rangoon. We had hired a driver for two days to take us to several places. We took a 10-minute ferry ride over to the island of Dalah, which our guidebook described as picturesque.
Our driver took the ferry with us and he helped us engage a Tuk Tuk (the three of us and the driver on a motorized three-wheel vehicle). The Tuk Tuk driver laid out the stops we would make. It was very loud, so I couldn’t really hear everything he said, but I knew wherever we went would be fine and interesting for me.
We traveled to a fishing village and then to a former town that had been decimated by a tsunami 10 years earlier. Part of the former town was a graveyard and another section was a soccer field… very eerie. We then went off-road into a field, where I saw a shack. I didn’t know what it was but quickly learned we were at an orphanage. About 20 children, mostly boys, lived there, and it was run by a Catholic priest. The orphanage was his mission and he was carrying it out the best that he could.
The children basically slept on the floor in one room within the structure. There was a separate space for girls and boys. Despite their circumstances, the kids were sweet and friendly. Nobody seemed worried about tomorrow – their needs would get taken care of somehow, someway. I gave them the money I had in my pockets and wished I had brought more with me.
We went back to the ferry for the return trip to Rangoon. There were a young girl and boy that gravitated to my wife and I, since we were foreigners on the ferry. Young kids in this area often sell gum, fruit and other small things to make money for their families. Though neither the girl or my wife spoke the other’s language, they attempted to communicate, and something was said about my wife’s earrings – an inexpensive pair she bought at Walmart.
My wife asked the girl if she had any earrings. When the girl indicated that she did not, my wife proceeded to take her earrings off and put them in the girl’s ears. The smile that came over this girl’s face lit up the entire boat. You would have thought she had received a million dollars. I can’t describe how proud I was of my wife. I also was so happy to see the joy this brought to this girl’s life.
The last example took place over the two days we were with our taxi driver. We came off our ship and he took us directly to Shwedagon Paya, a Buddhist shrine. I had not yet been able to get any local currency. The exchange rate is $1= 1,357 Kyats. I needed 30,000 kyats to get into the shrine. I wanted to borrow 30,000 kyats and the cab driver gave me 100,000. I knew that he thought he had given me the equivalent of $100 but it was acutally was 30,000 kyats short of $100. At the end of the first day, I paid him the equivalent of $100 (what we agreed to), but I gave it to him using his conversion rate of 100,000 kyats.
The next day, we went to see a puppet show and our driver sat with us. We went shopping after that. At his suggestion, we went to the Myanmar zoo. While I was at the monkey cage, one monkey came right up to the bars and I thought it was a perfect photo op. But before I knew what happened, the monkey had grabbed my phone. Then, the next thing I knew, the driver had grabbed the phone away from the monkey. Low and behold at the bottom of the cage were several broken phones, likely all “victims” of the same monkey.
The driver took us back to the boat. I paid him for the second day and gave him all the remaining kyats I had – a tip of $40 to $50 U.S. dollars. He just beamed; he was so thankful and appreciative.
It has been almost three months since I returned from my trip. People sometimes ask me, “What was the best or greatest thing you saw?” I saw a lot of wonderful places, but it was people like the ones I described – and how their spirituality allows them to live a very rich life, no matter what their economic condition – that I think I will remember most.
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Audrey Elsberry - Sep 22, 2023
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