Mind Over Matter

by Autumn Pippenburg


People in general are all the same, having the same needs and desires, all of which are instincts for survival. From children to adults, poor to rich, time after time, humans have proven to survive by adapting to change together, as a body. Unfortunately for some countries around the world, people are forced to change their way of living due to political matters, catastrophic natural disasters, widespread illness and disease, and struggle to keep a positive outlook to dig themselves out of the trenches and live a happy life. And others flock to their rescue, trying to bring refuge. But after someone has been in hardship for so long, after a body of people have been in hardship for so long, more than gifts are needed to dig them out of despair. Their outlook on life, their mindset, is often altered to a point of near to no return. And you can’t help someone who doesn’t know how to help themselves. The cycle will only continue and the hatred towards you and your “unsuccessful” efforts, will only grow.

How Can I Help?

I started traveling to Nicaragua about five years ago in search of an understanding of how other cultures in a third world country live and thrive. I’ve now been to Nicaragua 7 times and can honestly say my opinion about this country has changed from one extreme to the other. The first time you travel to a third world country, you have a lot of preconceived notions that that country is in poverty and can’t thrive on its own without outside aid. Everything you witness leads your mind to “how can I change that?” or “how can I help?”. You find yourself wanting to simply give them the things they’re asking for and trying to make their lives just a fraction, easier. But what you don’t realize upon first glance, is that you’re only a part of the problem and that only by teaching people to help themselves is the key to their happiness. Simply giving things to people never solves the reason for the need. It never teaches them to avoid the need in the first place. Philanthropists should be careful not to enable.

No one wants to be told how to live differently to conform to another way, a foreign way. No one wants to change their culture because someone from another culture tells them it’s better. And if you’re open and honest, you’ll find that their way of living can often times be a lesson to you. You see, I traveled to Nicaragua thinking I would change them and change their way of living, but they’ve changed me. Yes, there are lessons I can bring to the table as well, but only after I realized I’m not the only answer to their problems, they are.

Plant The Seed

If you reflect on your own life, you can probably think of a time someone tried to “change” you. They may have had the best intentions in the world, but that never mattered to you. You felt attacked and vulnerable and immediately shot that person down. Anything foreign to your upbringing can be intimidating and scary. I can also bet that at some point you looked back on that moment and thought, “That person was right, I just wasn’t ready to accept it yet. I had to go through life on my own and learn the hard way.” Perhaps that person planted a seed, but it was all on you to learn how to make that seed grow. A flower simply does not grow overnight. And there are many factors that you have to take into account in order for that flower to survive a long life. And the same goes for people. If you force feed them they will never allow you to help. Slow and steady wins the race.

Change The Mindset of a Child and Change An Entire Generation

I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum; enabling and teaching to be self sufficient. I don’t have all of the answers but I do know that there’s always an opportunity to teach when offering services or gifts. I’ll give you an example. There are many children here that I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with, however there is one in particular that has always stood out. His name is Carlitos and he’s a thirteen year old boy living at Los Quinchos, an orphanage in San Marcos, Carazo Nicaragua. When I first met Carlitos, he was in a fist fight with one of the other kids at the orphanage. I managed to get some one-on-one time with him and asked him why he was being so violent. It turned out, the other kids were picking on him and making fun of his situation because he was new to the orphanage and that was the only way they knew how to officiate him. The other directors at the orphanage refused to include Carlitos in the activities as punishment for his behavior and also refused to give him the gifts I brought for all of the kids at the orphanage. I didn’t disagree with this and stood by their decision. However, I felt the need to dig a little deeper.

Over the next few days I worked with Carlitos, making him give back to the children that had harassed him. I made him be kind, volunteer to help serve the food at meal times, and clean up after every meal. I spent extra time with him, showing him I cared and wanted to see his behavior improve. By improving the way he reacted to the other kids, he would improve the way they treated him. He was in control of his outcomes now and could learn to be a leader. When he asked me if he earned his gifts, I told him his opportunity for those gifts had passed and that he would have to wait for another opportunity. He got very angry and acted out yet again, which is exactly what I had expected he would do, as I am a mother and have witnessed this behavior before. I then continued on with my method but instead of punishing him for acting out, I made him partake in a yoga/meditation class with the other children. During this class, I spoke about self awareness and instilled the principle that we still say today, “yo soy aqie para ti” which means ‘I am here for you.’ Afterwords we all held hands in a circle, so each child could feel the other person’s touch and presence. I looked at Carlitos and said, “We are all family here. THIS is your family now and you should be proud and thankful for such a blessing. Family help each other without expecting anything in return.   Treat each person here as you would want to be treated.”

Later that evening, Carlitos volunteered to serve the cake and clean up after everyone’s meal. He never asked for anything in return, but I did get quite a big hug. Many months later I returned to Los Quinchos to see the children and check on their progress. The directors told me their attitudes had changed entirely and they now had a sense of belonging and pride. As a gift, my boyfriend Robbie and I handed out glow in the dark bracelets to all of the children. Carlitos opted out of his, and gave his to a younger child who was asking for another one due to his breaking. And that’s the very moment I realized things had truly “changed.” His mindset changed and his purpose in life now had meaning. He didn’t change because I brought him gifts. I could have given Carlitos the gifts I brought the very first day because I felt sorry for him, because he already had so little. But what would that have taught him? It would have taught him to only help others for something in return. The lesson Carlitos learned not only will change the outcome of his life, but everyone else around him. Change the mindset of a child and you will change an entire generation.

Art Ignites Change

The most successful way to positively impact a child, from my experience, is through art and meditation. Self awareness through your own creativity and your subconscious mind, can only be discovered when you allow your mind to explore the senses. A child’s mind is the world’s introduction to original thought and original creativity. Our perception, or otherwise our senses, are the foundation of our knowledge. Art is the means to explore our knowledge base, think outside of our current situation, and ignite change through discovery of self. Art is everywhere you look and in everything we do, but it’s not the presence of art that creates the spark; the power is in the ability to see art.

It’s not always easy to see the beauty in life when you’re in a constant struggle to survive. Nicaragua, although a beautiful country, has been in a state of desperation for a very long time and survival is a daily struggle. No matter the amount of gifts I bring, I could never truly make them satisfied. Their needs are so heavy and relief is so difficult to obtain. My only hope is to plant a seed with the children and ignite a change of mindset through art, altering an entire generation of people. If you can only see beauty, you’ll never know pain. If you can always create a solution, you’ll never lose your way. Using art to empower the youth of Nicaragua is my gift to them. It’s a gift that will keep giving; a generational movement.