Three summers ago, while I was working as a tree planter in a remote area of northern British Columbia, I was faced with a choice. Standing at the top of a precarious cliff on my twentieth birthday, I looked out at a piece of treacherous land that needed to be reforested. It was raining, which meant the mosquitoes and black flies were temporarily restrained—but it also made the slippery slope as much of a hazard as the field of stinging nettle waiting for me at the bottom. As I began my steep descent, clinging onto roots and shrubs growing out of the cliff with one hand and grasping my shovel in the other, the words of my foreman rang in my head: you can choose the attitude you want to have for the day.
It ended up being one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had. The more adverse the day became, the more fun I had with it. It was that summer I learned that our lives are a series of choices, and our world is a reflection of those choices. What drives our choices is not wealth, nor education, nor circumstance—but our attitude. So, three years later, when I found myself the foreman of my own crew of tree planters, I gave them the same speech: you are in charge of your attitude.
At the start of my fellowship with Not For Sale, I was given the option of either having one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, or one of the hardest. Over the course of six months, I’ve been pushed outside of my comfort zone, worked with people coming from backgrounds I can’t relate to, and been given responsibilities that I felt too inadequate to handle. Certainly, there were times when I wasn’t sure whether it would be the best or most difficult experience—but the point is that it was well within my ability to decide which it would be. And that is a powerful thing to realize.
Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to learn firsthand how the decisions we make and attitudes we choose will ultimately determine the outcome—some of which I’ll now share:
1. Frustration can overwhelm us, or serve us. || After six months of working with Not For Sale, I’m not sure which I find more exasperating: the millions of people in our world who are forced to work against their will, or the billions of people who don’t care. It appalls me that we often get more outraged when our car breaks down or when our favourite sports team loses, than we do about the economic crises of human trafficking and poverty.
Perhaps it’s because of the overuse of statistics to express the severity (like “30 million slaves” or “1.1 billion living on less than $1 a day”) and that we end up removing the human element by perceiving these as “issues” that we must fix. Or, to be slightly cynical, maybe it’s pure apathy. Either way, we can let our frustration with the state of our world to be crippling—or it can be a launching point for action. Our attitude determines whether we feel disempowered by our frustration, or we let “action to be the antidote to our despair” (Joan Baez).
2. Change starts with you. || If our desire is a world that values community, we must put more value on our neighbours and co-workers; on strangers and those different from us. If we want peace on a global scale, we need to be slow to anger, quick to listen, and cautious of how we speak to and treat those immediately around us. If we want justice, we must practice it at every level of our everyday lives. Confucious said it best:“To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order. To put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order. To put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”
3. The means will be an expression of the end. || On my first day of work at Not For Sale, Keturah—our fellowship director—sent us out on a highly-competitive scavenger hunt around the Half Moon Bay area. Her final words to us were: “It’s about the journey—not the destination.” It was a message I had to remind myself numerous times during my fellowship experience, when I felt like I had let down my boss or failed at a project I believed in. Maybe I did not achieve the results I wanted—but did I give up along the way? Did I compromise my principles? Was I focused on the collective goal rather than on selfish ambition?
A just and pure process will lead to a just and pure outcome. Along the way, there will be many stumbling blocks—arrogance, materialism, gossip and slander, laziness, and self-serving intentions. Falling into these traps on the journey will only taint the destination to which we’ll arrive.
4. Words are either medicine or poison. || Words have the potential to raise people up as much as they can bring people down. They have the power to inspire or destroy. As Audrey Hepburn once declared, “It says a great deal more about a person by what he/she says about others, than what others say about him/her.” In any setting—whether at a third world mission or a thriving NGO in the U.S.—we must choose to speak words that are encouraging, supportive, and life-giving.
5. How we live our days is how we live our lives. || Our habits comprise our character. If we turn whining and complaining into a habit, it will consume us over the course of our life. Instead, we can make it a habit to find joy in the most mundane tasks; humour in the most distressing situations; and strengths for every flaw we see in others. In the end, it is our attitudes that will make or break a relationship, a church, or even a non-profit organization.
In this world, war and hatred is easier than peace and love. It is far easier to destroy than to innovate; to be apathetic than to take action. And it takes much less effort to be miserable than to sustain an irrepressibly positive attitude. But the choices that we, as individuals, make every day will inevitably lead to the recovery or ruin of our world. Every day is an opportunity to fight against an injustice; to fight for your principles or happiness or dignity; to fight to create a new alternative for a better world. The choice is up to you.