There’s something very special about this place — The One Love Shelter in Bangalore, India. You would think that living in a shelter or being malnourished would dull your inner light. You would think that not having sanitary living conditions or proper hygiene would dampen your smile. I have witnessed that it doesn’t. In fact, I’ve never seen such love and connectedness under such circumstances, ones that I can’t be with for more than a day, let alone the years of childhood.
There are 20 of them. 20 boys from the ages of 6 to 22 who live in this shelter. The space is one room about 400 square feet with a hallway-size kitchen, bathroom, and storeroom area. At night, they lay out blankets in this space and the one room transforms into their bedroom. Along one wall of the room is a set of lockers, each locker about 12” x 12”. Each boy gets one locker to store all of his personal belongings. Yes, ALL. And to think that I traveled to India with a large suitcase and backpack probably the size of three of those lockers put together, and I still find myself daily thinking about something back home I wish I would have packed.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from these boys is that you are not your circumstances. I am not my past, I am not my race, I am not the car I drive, or my financial status. The power of the human spirit is a remarkable thing and shining your own light in the face of any circumstance is what separates you from being governed by it.
Have you ever woken up to the sound of your alarm thinking, “another day, same ol’ same ol’”? Start putting yourself in situations that will diversify your perspective. Move out of your comfort zone and daily routine, otherwise what’s familiar becomes your only experience of life. Through exposure you realize there’s this enormous world out there, a world that you don’t know you don’t know, and this is the realm of being that I’ve discovered from spending time with these 20 boys.
How could it be possible that they were happier than me when I had it all? What I didn’t know I didn’t know is that a 14 year old living in the slums could have more than me. Here I was living in San Diego, California… I get to teach yoga for a living, I’m a journalist, and I work for my own non-profit. I was seemingly living the dream and it wasn’t enough.
The sight of seeing 12 year olds carrying 5 gallon buckets of water from a water tank to the shelter with a smile on their faces changes you. Sometimes, I imagine I’m in a time-warp and feel this is how my parents must have been as kids. We play card games, we make up hand-clapping games, we play cricket, badminton and games on the chalkboard, we have thumb wars, we throw small rocks to try and knock down an empty water bottle, and the list goes on. There are no toys, no video games, just connecting with each other.
The stories of unity and love between these boys is astounding. I’ll never forget this moment that took my breath away. I had taken three of the 20 boys out to buy soccer gear because they were the only ones playing that school year. I bought them cleats, socks, shin guards, the whole shebang. My heart was heavy the entire time because all I could think of was, “Will the other boys feel bad? Will they think I favor these three?”. When we arrived back at the shelter, the remaining boys were so excited! The little ones were jumping up and down clapping their hands, and the older boys gave me huge smiles with a thumbs up. Then the older boys proceeded to help the three boys put on their gear to show everyone. It was incredibly endearing to see the 16 and 17 year olds helping the three boys put the shin guards on, pull the socks up, and lace the shoes.
This was an eye-opening moment for me. I realized how much of my own beliefs I project onto others. I’ve created this filter on how I see life, and then assume others must see it the same. I have two sisters and growing up I remember it always had to be even or one of us would get upset. If one of my sisters got something, I wanted one, too, or I would feel my parents were playing favorites.
Today, this childhood way of being has translated into one of my biggest challenges, dealing with injustices. A great deal of my suffering comes from fighting the fact that life is not fair. I remember observing the moments after arriving at the shelter with the soccer gear. I kept looking around expecting to see a boy pouting because he didn’t get anything. I kept thinking any time now I’d hear complaining. Those assumptions never came. To see these kids be so genuinely happy for each other blew my mind and opened my heart even more to humanity.
Who cares where you live or what your title is, know that you get to choose at any moment in your life who you want to be.