Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lessons learned in Darwin: Part 1 (It's not about you)


It's not about you. 

These four words have been the mantra of my month in Darwin. It's been the guiding philosophy behind the work of all the volunteers I have met and the work we were doing. The phrase, which is in such contradiction to the self-fulfilment and "me" generation that we're supposed to be, was something that was one of the best and surprisingly easiest lessons I've ever learned.

Volunteering in a detention centre and working with refugees and asylum seekers automatically made it not about us. As volunteers, we weren't there to feel good about ourselves (although of course we all had an incredible experience), we were there to make other people feel good and to make that our priority. If we were tired from less than six hours of sleep, if we were hungry because we didn't have enough time to eat lunch or if we were feeling a little fatigued from three sessions of yoga we all - for lack of a better expression - sucked it up and remembered it wasn't about us. It would have been easy to make it about us, but having done that most of our lives, for 2-4 weeks we would be making it completely and so whole-heartedly about the people in the detention centres whose stories we couldn't begin to understand and whose resilience was overwhelming. It was one of the most liberating realisations of my life.

It's not that the idea was new, the saying 'do unto others as you would have done to you' has been around for centuries and is common to all the major religions, but the phrase 'It's not about you' hits the mark. It's catchy, cheeky and more succinct. It's an order, a mantra and the first lesson I learned in Darwin.

Carrying on from that, we were there to make the clients happy - to make them smile, laugh and enjoy themselves in the programs we were running. For some clients this was no mean feat while for others I had never felt so funny in my entire life. Making it about somebody else filled me with more purpose than I knew what to do with. It was the True North of a compass, the unwavering standard of measurement.

This lesson ties in with the quote that's been in the back of my mind the last couple of months 'who are you to stand in the way of this work?' It's a question that put to rest all the insecurities I had, jilting them sharply into perspective and giving me motivation to move beyond them. The fear of being rejected socially went out the window, fear of talking to strangers, fear of people laughing at me and mocking me were virtually non-existent. In fact, people laughing and mocking us was one of the aims and main conversation starters in making it not about us, and all about them. (I'm mulling over a post in my mind about 5 ways to make friends and it's got a lot to do with being silly so keep an eye out for that :)

As long as we were making the client laugh and smile we were doing what we were meant to do. Especially if it was at our own expense. Being able to leave our inhibitions and pride at the door and picking up the ability to make fun of ourselves, be child-like and completely at the service of somebody else was liberating. It's funny how giving so much to somebody else you end up getting ten fold back from yourself.. while it may appear self-less, in the end the 'return on investment' is exponential.

The 'It's not about you' phrase came in handy too when saying goodbye, when the innate human desire to be adored and valued kicked in. It was natural to have the clients say that would miss us and remember us, to become close with clients but the reality of the work was that it wasn't about us, even then. When we became old volunteers and our last week grabbed us firmly by the hand, leading us to the door, it was our job to usher in the new volunteers and send the limelight their way. As much as we wanted to be remembered it was our job to make sure we were replaceable - which I'm more than happy to say we were. Seeing the clients with the new volunteers smiling and laughing was comforting. As heart-breaking as it was and still is to know I may never see these people again, these people whose friendship means the world, it was always about happy goodbyes, positive talk and reaching out to as many clients as possible.

It's a lesson that I hope I will continue to practise, remembering just how valuable it is for other people. The second part of it is that at the end of the day, making it about somebody else is more rewarding than if you made it about yourself in the first place. It comes full circle and whatever you give you get back in buckets, truckloads and massive showering thunderstorms.

This experience has left an indelible impression on who I am now and who I want to be. It's been the best possible foundation for my year away in Spain which is now only 2 weeks away. It's given me tougher skin and a direction in life that is now becoming clearer and clearer. I haven't made any new years resolutions but I guess my first one starting now is this first lesson I've learned, making it about other people - who are so much more reliable, incredible and worth it than if I made it about myself. A belated new years toast dedication to all of the people who it was about this Christmas and New Years - the intelligent, kind, resilient and awe-inspiring refugees, asylum-seekers, volunteers and everybody I met in Darwin - this one's for you.


  1. love this post grace. sounds like the first chapter of an amazing book :)

  2. Thanks Noeline :) I'm sure you have so much to write about now that you're in Spain as well... 2 weeks and I'll be there too!

  3. Such true words grace! Beautifully written. It's so easy to get caught up on our life and forget how fortunate we are. Thanks for reminding me of that

  4. what a humbling experience. this post is awesome grace. very inspiring :)

  5. Thank you both. Your comments are so encouraging, I hope to write more posts that you'll both enjoy.