The other day I was sitting in my office when one of my students, Rima, walked in and asked if I would be interested in going to Honduras. Rima is the president of my university’s student chapter of Medical Brigades, an “international movement of students and medical professionals working alongside local communities and staff to implement sustainable health systems.” She’s coordinating a service project for 30 students and four faculty advisors. One of the faculty advisors had to back out at the last minute, so Rima asked if I wanted to go.
It was a big decision. I’ve coordinated international service trips in the past, taking students to places like Kenya and northern India. I’ve seen the effect such experiences can have on students, simply because it requires them to immerse themselves in the service and the culture of the people they are serving. I just had to ask myself: Do I want to do this again? — knowing it would be a big commitment, seven days of working beside students from dawn to dusk in an environment that’s far different than that of my daily life.
Yet it was an easy decision to make. In my head, I said “Yes.” I didn’t say “Yes” to Rima right away — I asked her to explain the nature of the trip, why she was recruiting me specifically, what the service involved, why she was committed to this particular organization. I wanted to make sure my desire to say “Yes” was in sync with Rima’s commitment to this initiative. I told her that I’d like the weekend to think it over, which she agreed to. It’s good to ruminate on a big decision, even if it’s one you’ve already made.
Why was it an easy decision to make? Because I’ve been involved in a thought experiment for the last three months. I call it the “serenity experiment.” Everything I do has to give me a degree of serenity. If it doesn’t, then I don’t do it. The result of doing only things that provide “peace of mind” is that I end up doing less, and what I do typically requires less information to process. The result of doing less, and processing less data, is more mental presence.
The experiment has had some unexpected benefits. I find myself recalling childhood memories that haven’t surfaced in years. I have less interest in using my smartphone. I give myself permission to sleep as much as I want. And, it turns out, I prepare myself for making big, real-time decisions.
If I had been over-stimulated, sleep-deprived, and distracted when Rima asked me, I probably would have thought “No.” Or I would have told her, “I’ll think about it,” while simultaneously thinking of an excuse not to go to Honduras. I’m glad I was prepared for her question. She presented me with an opportunity, and I had the presence of mind to recognize it.
I have no plans to end the serenity experiment, which probably means it’s no longer an experiment and is now more of a lifestyle. The work will now revolve around maintaining a proper mindset so that “peace of mind” is afforded the opportunity to proliferate–a presence of mind that will help me work with Rima and the other students who are participating in this humanitarian effort.
David Howell is the author of The Descent into Happiness: A Bicycling Journey over the Cascades and Rockies and across the Great Plains (Blue Ear Books, 2016).