The great 20th Century thinker, GK Chesterton (the "Apostle of Common Sense"), once observed that "The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them... I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."
When I first moved here two years ago, I told myself I would maintain a blog and record my experiences, not just to share with others the reason I love this region, but also for sake of my future self, so I could look back fondly on my time spent here.
Well, I never did get around to starting that blog. As such, I've been trying to play catch-up and take more time the past few months to reflect and process my experiences.
When we take a serious look at the world, it is easy to quickly become discouraged. Now bear with me -- I promise this isn't a critical analysis. With poverty, starvation, human trafficking, violence, war, the mistreatment of women, the abuse of children, etc, etc..., the easy thing to do would be to throw up your hands and give up, right? After all it doesn't appear we are making much progress in ameliorating these problems and fixing the worlds ills, does it?
I am ashamed to admit that I have been guilty of this attitude at a number of times, myself.
But when you begin to truly assess the root causes of many -- if not most -- of these struggles, it becomes apparent that we are a lot more similar than we'd like to admit, and that we are all struggling in a desperate attempt to try and fill a void that exists in our lives.
I find it amazing -- although not all that surprising -- that CS Lewis (a great student and lover of all things GK Chesterton) would observe a similar point when he wrote "And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
We all have a void we are trying to fill, and even if we don't see ourselves in Lewis's brief list above (not meant to be fully inclusive), most of ours -- and by extension -- the world's problems, stem from us trying to fill that void.
I have always felt that everyone talks about changing the world for the better, but they never talk about changing themselves for the better. How can I change the world, if that change doesn't begin with me?
Now, I'm not suggesting you forsake reality in favor of a more comfortable -- yet unrealistic -- view (we can never improve things unless we are willing to admit that they need to be improved). The truth is that the world is full of a lot of "ugly", but the truth also is, that it is full of a lot of "beauty". If we can recondition ourselves to see past the bad and refocus on the good, I think it will make a tremendous difference.
In many ways, my experience in Appalachia has done just that.
Since January, the state of Kentucky has been carving up the mountain around my office and taking soil samples and other surveying measurements, in preparation for further road development in a couple years. When they first started this phase, all I could see was the devastation it was causing. But for some reason, today was different. When I looked out on the mountain, I didn't see the scars which I had seen before, but rather the beautiful potential they formed as hiking trails, and had appreciation for the fact that I had been able to be a part of a great nonprofit organization which does a lot to improve the lives of others (not just those they serve, but their employees, volunteers and the general community). I have had some big disappointments, set-backs and struggles the past few years, which have caused me to question a lot of things, but I couldn't imagine having had to deal with them without the friends and relationships I have formed over the same time.
I am grateful and appreciative that I have had the privilege to spend the past two years of my life immersed in Appalachia. As I prepare to leave my adopted home next month, I can honestly say that coming here was the best decision I've made in a long time. Thank you to everyone who has impacted my life and made this experience a true gift. I love you all.
Nick first served at CAP as a long-term volunteer in the Housing program in the Sandy Valley in 2011-12. He is currently serving as a VISTA volunteer with CAP.