When I went to Fiji to build septic tanks as a teenager, I learned pretty quickly that time works differently there. They call it “Fiji Time.” It’s slow, and it’s present. Little did I know that a few key experiences while there would be some of the building blocks to help me understand why mindfulness really matters.
In 2009 I traveled to Fiji with a program called AYS. We went to build septic tanks and bathrooms in two villages called Galoa and Dranikula. I learned a tremendous amount from the loving, wonderful people of those villages and most importantly, I learned a profound lesson from an older gentleman named Toma.
These villages had very little. They cooked outside, most “rooms” in the homes were separated by curtains, and we were there to build simple sanitation facilities.
Our group was split up into smaller groups to work on several different outhouse-type facilities. I was placed in a group with a boy named Connor. Connor and I worked alongside several men from the village, digging ditches, carrying heavy wheelbarrows full of sand, building framework, and pouring cement. As we worked, we had a wonderful time joking and getting to know each other. One of the most meaningful ways to get to know someone is to serve with them.
One afternoon, Connor borrowed Toma’s hammer to nail some boards together. A few quick swings and the handle snapped right off. Toma prided himself in his carpentry work. He glowed with pride as he often showed off the makeshift porch he had added to his humble home. I think Connor was afraid to tell Toma what had happened to his hammer, but he was honest and revealed the damage to Toma while apologizing profusely.
Toma smiled at Connor with that twinkle in his eye that shows when someone holds years of wisdom and said, “This?” (Referring to the hammer) “This is nothing. Life is something. Break a finger, it hurts. Because it is life. I will miss you when you leave. It is in the heart- a part of life. But this? This is nothing. Hammer is nothing. Only life is something.”
My priorities, my opinion about possessions, and my whole perspective changed in that moment.
Shortly after that, my camera was stolen. All of my favorite photos of the ocean, of Indian fire-walking ceremonies, of the beautiful little village children… taken in a moment. At first, I was devastated. I was a photographer on the side and I took some pride in a great number of the pictures I had captured on that nice little Cannon point-and-shoot. I did everything I could to get it back, but I think I knew it was a lost cause all along. I continued to stew over it until, on a loud boat ride through the muggy river waters in Fiji, I realized something. This was nothing. Only life is something. Here I was, on an amazing adventure with wonderful people. That was something.
Having that camera stolen from me was one of the biggest blessings. From that moment on, I truly saw the people I was serving with. They weren’t photographs, they were people. They were life. I was significantly more present with my new friends. I saw them. I am grateful for these few photos I have from other group members and a disposable camera I used prior to that moment. But more importantly, I’m grateful for the people I served with and the lesson I learned about being truly and mindfully present with those around you.
I think of this experience often, especially in a world full of Instagram Filters and live photos today. I most definitely document our family history in photos on my phone, but I try to remind myself to see my children and family members with my own eyes as often as possible. They are life. They are something.