Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. ~Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy
Maya is a beautiful petite woman from rural Bangladesh. Maya’s mother was 14 when she was married off to a 50-year old abusive man in order to pay a family debt. She became pregnant early and was forced give Maya away. Maya, despite her challenging past, was given a magical opportunity to embrace the American dream. She was adopted by an American family, secured a solid education and built a rewarding career in the US. Although she had forged her own success, something was still broken inside of her. After she turned 30, she decided to go back to Bangladesh and find her birth mother. Fueled with ambition, she also raised money for Bangladeshi tribal women’s education, hoping to spare them from the same fate that befell her and her mother.
“But I’m a bit tired of telling THAT story,” Maya told me. “I have another one to share with you.” At first I was disappointed. What could be better than THAT story?
“The story I want to tell happens after all that….” she said.
Maya’s story starts with her return to Bangladesh. Her original intent was to find her mother, engage with other women, and launch her social organization that would, no doubt, change the world. Perhaps her name would be in headlines everywhere as a world savior! Her intent, however, changed within 48 hours of landing.
“When I got there I was humbled,” said Maya. “They didn’t need me or my ideas! These woman had so much wisdom and love. They were so peaceful and strong. My mother had moved on from all the hardship that befell her. I realized this wasn’t a case of me saving THEM, it was a case of them saving ME!”
Maya explained that those of us luckily born into rich western countries think we can change the world by imposing our values (education, culture, religion) without taking the time to understand the community we are trying to help. Often, we think those in developing nations are in drastic need when it is US that are impoverished.
“I was kind of arrogant to think I had any wisdom that could ‘save them’ without even taking the time to understand them,” she said.
Maya decided to change her intent and listen and learn from the Bangladeshi women. “They had such a sense of community. We could really learn a lot from them. Grace, simplicity, and care for others. In some ways they have more wealth in spirit than we do.”
Perhaps the new philanthropy is reverse philanthropy where we gain from those we give to. Philanthropy should be a symbiotic relationship: World change and our own change.
Maya continued, “In Silicon Valley there are some with grandiose visions to ‘change the world.’ But I feel that they’re doing so for an ego boost or to fix something broken in their own life. I feel sad when they embark upon big journeys to third world countries, but don’t have enough time for their own children. How can they know what a third world country needs if they don’t listen to what their own family needs? There is that quote “be the change you want to see in the word.’ Too many people think this means to go and fix the world. Ha. But it means it starts with YOU. You need to BE the change.”
“So how are you the change?” I asked her.
“I no longer want to go through life in a hurry trying to further some master plan.
I want to be here for each moment and each person. That’s how change starts-by putting the larger agenda aside to be present. I’m also accepting that I’m not perfect and that the process is unfolding, this is my individual journey”
Maya was so calm and warm compared to my own frenzy. I had, true to my nature, scheduled our interview between 2 other events, busying myself to appear important. Maya had just scheduled me. However, even though I often try to demonstrate that I’m a well-connected self made woman with lots of ‘plans’, inside I’m thirsty for a tight nit loving community where I can just be my simple, flawed self.
My simple, flawed self was lucky enough to attend Maya’s birthday party where a small gathering of about 20 eclectic people sat around her and drank wine. Maya took a moment to recognize each individual and tell the crowd what each person meant to her. It was the opposite of all my birthday toasts where I expect everyone to go around and say one great thing about me. Ahem.
From romantic to platonic, From San Francisco to Bangladesh Maya believes in spreading intent and love in every action we take. If all philanthropy started with the intent of love instead of success, I wonder if we’d understand each other a bit better. I wonder what type of giving would occur. I wonder how our own small communities would flourish.
“And in the development of mankind as a whole, just as in individuals, love alone acts as a civilizing factor in the sense that it brings a change from egoism to altruism.” –Sigmund Freud