Back Into The Wilderness (Chapter 20)

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I returned to Sydney refreshed from the time I spent in Papua New Guinea. Without exaggeration, it had been a life-changing experience. It had taken me to travel to a place where people had “nothing” in a material sense from a Western perspective to realise how much lack we experienced in our society. By comparison, the lives of people in remote villages in Papua New Guinea seemed idyllic.

I remember one occasion vividly, and even now I can feel the freshness of the ocean in such a way that I am immediately transported back to that time. I was on an island called Bagabag which sits about seven nautical miles north of Madang. It is a timeless paradise where night gives way to day, punctuated by a spectacular transformation at dawn. There is no need for clocks on this small island with the dramatic sunset announcing the end of each restful day with certainty. There is no internet, no mobile phone network, no electricity, no running water, but it is a place where you feel as though you have everything you needed in abundance.

We went fishing on the afternoon I arrived. Setting the boat out onto the coral reef surrounding the tropical shoreline, we all laughed together enjoying the simple pleasure of reeling in fish effortlessly, catching enough for our dinner that evening. The ocean was impossibly blue, and the vibrant reef teeming with life below thoroughly inviting. I said I wanted to go swimming, which amused my friends who lived in the nearby village. “Then just go!” they exclaimed. Life was simple and perfect. I dived into the crystal clear water. Visibility extended further than my eyesight could see towards a distant horizon. As I submerged to swim among shoals of colourful fish, it was as though I had departed from the Ordinary World momentarily to enter a Special World which existed under this aquatic realm. I may have as well been the only person swimming in the ocean on the planet. It was a remarkably exhilarating feeling of complete freedom. Liberating!

Returning to the boat, the spectre of child mortality was perhaps the furthest thing from my mind. I didn’t have the benefit of tabulated statistics to put this population into perspective. There was no brochure of poverty porn peddling photos of misery and disadvantage. All that I could see was the happiness of the locals.

The next morning, I was captivated by a procession of local women who were walking through this village with their children and babies to the small school which sat many kilometres on the other end of the island. The exotic nature of this island was intoxicating. It was easy to believe that this paradise was perfect, and to lose perspective when trying to understand a problem like child mortality. To be fair, I was visiting the island to examine opportunities for ecotourism and not focused on maternal and health issues specifically, but it is telling that child mortality was so easy to overlook because it is largely unseen to the casual observer.

I opened a respectful conversation asking how people from this village might be affected by child mortality one night after we ate dinner together. It was humbling to hear their responses trying to help me make sense of a complex issue, my questions a blunt intrusion into their most intimate and personal lives. Of course there were problems, and of course they wanted the best for their children. But changing the situation seemed incomprehensible to them. It was a salient lesson for me. The conversations I had been reading from the large conventions with rock stars and world leaders seemed a million miles from this reality. There seemed to be a disconnect from the boardrooms in New York to the remote villages in places like Papua New Guinea. How could I be sure I was seeing things for what they were? I was convinced that human bridges were necessary to overcome this gap, but what would that look like exactly?

A short while later after swimming in the ocean, I departed Papua New Guinea and returned to the life I had left behind in Sydney. Even though I was now amongst the metropolis of a city, I felt as though I was back in the wilderness, figuratively speaking. My existence in the city seemed barren because of the financial hardship I had entered. Even though I was living in a big city, I became increasingly aware of what I could not do with the absence of money. It was an unenviable wilderness. My life was fast becoming a farce in that I was seeking to address an issue of extreme poverty but at a time when I was beginning to plumb the depths of personal poverty myself. This was a truth I was unable or unprepared to share with others. The money I had raised from the earlier crowdfunding had been banked and sat impotently held in trust, awaiting for a sufficient quantity that would allow for my travel. But for now, I was almost broke and effectively homeless.

My personal situation created its own dilemmas in how I ought to share the story of this quixotic task I had accepted to build bridges that somehow might address child mortality. It was unpleasant to say the least. A cruel irony was emerging that reflected an imbalance I have seen in the lives of others too where there might be access to a solution, but no access to resources. The opposite is equally as bad where there is an abundance of resources, but no vision for making things better. Both of these scenarios are wastelands where we are confronted by our own wilderness.

Overcoming Backswing requires us to often strike at the ball even if we know we are beginning from a low base where there is probability of hitting big is slim. This is a painful place to advance out from, and can be a crushing place to be. Even so, we must do the work. We have to show our form at batting first, even if it means striking out. We must be patient as we hustle and work towards achieving the goal which has become our burning desire.

The secret to overcoming backswing when you are in the wilderness is to make small hits. Hold onto the grand vision, but be satisfied with modest progress small gains toward a better outcome. It will take time. You must preserve. And it is all on you.

We don’t talk enough about the wilderness that we often find our lives wandering into. We are happier denying the existence of tough times. It is an uncomfortable truth the share with others. Radical collaboration is build on trust grounded in a sense of openness to being vulnerable.

Overcoming Backswing means that we have to be prepared to talk about the wilderness. Find those you trust. Find a way out. You will need to do some serious work if you are going to overcome Backswing and eventually hit that ball out of the park. Whatever happens, don’t let your dreams die in the wilderness. Live. Don’t simply exist.

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