Finding Self-Renewal in the Himalayas
By Jeffrey Kottler
Tens of thousands of miles away from his practice, a therapist accidentally discovers a new sense of purpose, unable to distinguish the act of giving from the act of love.
As a therapist these days, faced with all the grim realities of our times, it's hard to escape the admonitions about becoming more involved in community activism, social advocacy, or social justice work of some kind. It all sounds noble, praiseworthy, and important, but most of us are too busy trying to take care of our clients and keep our own heads above water to venture out to serve some larger cause. It's one thing to volunteer a few hours per week or take on some low-paying clients, but who has time to change the world when we already have our hands full trying to make a living and get through the obstacle course of a normal work week?
Nevertheless, much of the work I now do takes me thousands of miles away from my practice and my family for months at a time. I don't feel that I chose to embark on a different kind of professional pathway, nor do I have a clear idea of where I'm going next in my life. We regularly talk with our clients about the importance of making choices in life, but in my own experience, it often seems that some paths choose us.
I now spend several months each year working in remote regions of Nepal, helping lower-caste girls, who are at the greatest risk of being forced into early marriage or trafficked into sex slavery, by making it possible for them to attend school and become the first girls in their villages to go on to receive a higher education. After 12 years of effort, we have hundreds of girls in our program from a dozen different villages scattered around the country. But I never planned or even dreamed of such a mission: it was something that fell into my lap.
Imagine, if you will, that you're in a remote village somewhere in the world--as I was more than a decade ago--conducting research on maternal mortality with a graduate student. While going about your business, you learn that young girls are somehow "disappearing" from school without causing anyone to express any particular curiosity about their whereabouts. So you question the school principal about what's going on. He shrugs and tells you that some families are so poor that they have no choice but to keep their girls out of school and working at home, where the lucky ones are forced to marry by age 12. The not-so-lucky ones end up sold, kidnapped, or tricked into sex slavery and smuggled across the border into India, where they can end up being raped 15 to 20 times per day, and die of AIDS within a few years. This may be one of the most horrific tales you've ever heard, but so far, it's just a story among all the cruel, heartless injustices occurring every day around the world. But what if this principal standing next to you casually points to a young girl talking to her friends and tells you that she'll be "disappeared" next? What would you do then?
What if you asked the principal how much it would take to keep this little girl in school and away from harm, and he told you that it would cost all of $50? What if you impulsively reached into your pocket and gave the principal the money to save this girl's life, and then learned that unless you were prepared to revisit this village and check on this girl, she and the money would likely disappear? What would you do then?
I must confess that it wasn't courage or altruism that led me down this path. Since I don't believe in luck or fate, I think that my present course is the logical consequence of a life spent acting impulsively and trying to do the most good that I can in the limited time I'm allotted. That's why, so many years later, I find myself somewhere in the Himalayan foothills, three planes, a bus ride, and long walk--mostly up a steep mountainside--to this ridge, where I'm resting with a group of volunteers and 55 of the scholarship children we support.
The Girl with the Turquoise Scarf
I'm sitting on a rock, trying to catch my breath in the thin, cool, mountain air. For the past half-hour, we've been snaking our way up a narrow trail leading to a stupa, a Buddhist shrine, perched high over a Himalayan village. I turn and look downward, noticing with relief that I'm not the only one who stopped to rest: dozens of girls are strung out behind and ahead of me, the youngest 10 years old and the eldest in her late teens. They've all been transported here from their villages across Nepal, each supported by a scholarship to keep her in school.
I wonder what I'm really doing here. My first thought is that I'm hiding from my responsibilities back home, or maybe hiding from myself. But no, that's not exactly it. I've been ready for a change in my professional life for some time. Throughout my career, I've periodically felt stale doing therapy, tired of hearing my same old anecdotes and stories, and I've managed to revitalize myself by reinventing how I work. After altering the way I do therapy more times than I can count, I realized that even that wasn't working anymore. I've felt trapped by my routines, stuck in the template that's become my life. Lately I've felt more and more like a hypocrite as I've urged my clients and students to take new risks to nourish and stimulate their lives. It's getting harder to live with myself when I realize that whatever time I have left is passing by at a fairly fast clip.