The stillness of simplicity

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
Getting around Nong Khai on bicycle is one way to slow down the pace of life. (Provided photo)

Nong Khai, Thailand — Notes from the Field is GSR’s summer blogging project. Working with the Catholic Volunteer Network, we’ve enlisted four young women working in ministries of Catholic sisters around the world – Honduras, Thailand, Ethiopia and the United States – to blog about their experiences, each for six weeks. This is Bridgit O'Brien's first blog from Nong Khai, Thailand.

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In a time when the pace of life is controlled more by the devices that live in our pockets and less by its natural tempo, simplicity and stillness are a luxury. The 21st-century culture of productivity, activity and immediacy gives little room for life characterized by contemplation, tranquility and leisure. As more distractions enter our daily lives, we stop using the free time we do have to process, make sense of and direct our experiences – and instead opt to update ourselves on the lives of others in the world of social media. We are teaching our children ever more increasingly how to operate in and acclimatize to the output-driven, success-oriented, fast-paced world that surrounds us. However, what happens when we step out of the confusion of the contemporary? What can a life of simple living and stillness teach us?

I have been an international Good Shepherd Volunteer (GSV) in Nong Khai, Thailand, for the past year, working with an organization led by the order of Good Shepherd Sisters ministering here to provide care, resources and income-generating opportunities for individuals affected and infected with HIV/AIDS. I arrived in Nong Khai in August of 2014, shortly after finishing my first year of service with sisters domestically at a residential treatment center for adolescents with severe emotional and behavioral disorders in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the main tenants of Good Shepherd Volunteers, along with spirituality, community and social justice, is simplicity. In the two years I have been with the sisters, but most especially this year in Thailand, I have had a lot of time to meditate on what a life of simple living looks like, away from all of the clutter of our modern world.

A view of the rice field adjacent to the Garden of Friendship just before harvesting. (Bridgid O'Brien)

Prior to joining Good Shepherd Volunteers, I graduated from Boston College in the spring of 2013 with my Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology. At school, I became accustomed to the fast-paced life of balancing classes and studying with attending an assortment of weekly extracurricular activities that ranged from the Irish dance team and a campus magazine to domestic service trips and an international immersion program. With all the activities padding my weekly calendar, some how I managed to also work in the college admissions program and as a teacher’s assistant in a local middle school classroom. However, I never realized just how quickly I was always moving. In fact, if I weren’t doing anything, a switch in my brain would instantly light up as if something were wrong. “Of course there is something to get done,” it would say. “How could you even think about watching a movie or reading a book for pleasure,” it would taunt.

Entering into life in Nong Khai, all of my established ways of operating on turbo speed were instantly halted. While my simple life in Thailand is influenced by my monthly stipend of $95, simplicity here has been more so embodied by simplicity of time and thoughts. Living without the Internet in my home, my life has been free of many distractions brought on by usual ever-present technology. While my life has definitely been made simpler without constantly being in tune with the happenings of friends and acquaintances all around the world, more importantly, my life has been made simpler in action.

I live and work in a community for individuals with HIV/AIDS as a patient care worker. During the day, I volunteer at an assisted living and care center for patients suffering from secondary complications due to their HIV-positive status – most commonly tuberculosis – as well as doing medical outreach in the further villages twice a week. At the care center, I assist in daily activities with the patients, help cook lunch, translate medical intake forms from Thai to English, and provide rudimentary care like giving bed baths. While this may seem like a lot of daily tasks, in reality, my workday is usually very slow. In the fast-paced United States, we are taught that activity leads to productivity, and that rest leads to laziness. In contrast, Thai work life encourages just being, of standing still. For those I live and work with, the slower pace of the Thai work place as well as the simplicity of life in general makes them appear much calmer, less anxiety filled and more appreciative of the things they have than their Western counterparts. It has taken me a long time to adapt to the slower Thai work environment, and I often still find myself feeling guilty about enjoying my morning coffee at the office or reading a book during the down period after lunch.

Talking with Si, one of the few HIV-negative patients at the sisters' Care Center, who was completely paralyzed when I arrived last August due to an untreated stroke, but has since regained some use of her hands and legs. (Provided photo)

The care center where I work is located approximately 40 steps from my front door. As well as the care center and the volunteer house, the community, called the Garden of Friendship, also includes four family houses and four single-unit apartments. In the evenings following work, I can often be found reading, listening to podcasts or spending time with the children and teenagers who live in the Garden. Currently there are five adolescents, ranging in age from 7 to 19, living in the community. Four of these young people are HIV positive, and three do not have parents. To say that the children have utterly and completely stolen my heart is an understatement, and I treasure the time I get to spend with them after they return from work and school.

The simplicity of life here in Nong Khai – without ever-present distractions such as the Internet, texting, friends, dating or a stressful work environment – has lead to an abundance of free time that has allowed me to focus on the relationships I am building, who I am, who I am becoming, the things that fill me up, and to recognize the parts of me that I would like to change. For the first time in a long time, I am acutely aware of my own feelings, wants, needs and desires. I am often either so in tune with the thoughts and wishes of others that my own take a backseat or I’m running about life at such a fast pace that I don’t have time to recognize the feelings and emotions flowing through my brain. Slowing down the pace of life has allowed me to distance myself from my everyday experiences and more adequately process and appreciate the events that are ever unfolding around me. However, more than anything, the simplicity of life in Nong Khai has been a catalyst for opening up a vat of feeling and desires that is characteristically unnatural for me and it is taking time. But I’m learning.

Playing with four of the children who live in the Garden of Friendship: (from left) Prio, 20, Belle, 16, Wansai, 12, and Bon, 15. All were born with HIV but have been given a new chance at life while living in the supportive and inclusive community. (Bridgid O'Brien)

I am learning that being with people is what makes me happy. I am learning that I really don’t like to talk all that much. I like to listen. I like to be a presence. I’m learning that I really like to read. I’m learning that sometimes I don’t think before I speak and that humor is one of my main coping skills. I’m learning that I should have more confidence in myself than I do. I’m realizing the full extent to how much I put others above myself. I’m realizing that even though I love being with people, I also need time to be by myself after a long day. I’m learning to change my thoughts about my body and my physical appearance after years of low self-esteem and negative self-image. I’m learning that it’s really hard. I’m learning that it takes a lot of work. I’m realizing that I am changing. I’m realizing that I am experiencing a joy I have never felt before.

[Bridgid O’Brien is an international Good Shepherd Volunteer in Nong Khai, Thailand, working with an organization that provides care, resources and income-generating opportunities for individuals affected and infected with HIV/AIDS.]

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