It was 7:30 a.m. on a brisk morning in the Andean mountains of Bolivia back in 2013. I was immersed in my first year of life as a Franciscan lay missioner and one of the only foreigners participating in a overnight workshop on organic agriculture and forest farming. That day we were invited to visit the fields of local organic forest farms.
As I finished up breakfast, I realized that my fellow workshop participants were all quickly rushing out the door to the buses that would transport us that day. I felt a rush of panic. “What about my backpack, what about my stuff?” I thought as I tried to chew faster and faster, realizing that I hadn’t yet packed anything I might need for the rest of the day and the buses were already waiting outside.
Back in my small room, while other workshop participants ran past my doorway to the bus, I grabbed my backpack and looked down at everything I had gathered for the workshop: sunscreen, glasses, sunglasses, hat, notebook, water bottle, phone and digital camera.
Nervous and feeling out of place, I looked to the other participants, trying to make sense of how they all got ready so fast when I was just getting started. I realized that there was one big difference between me and them. Each participant that ran past my door had a hat on their head and a pen and folder in hand and nothing else. No backpacks, no sunglasses, no sunscreen, no water bottle.
I panicked again. Did I need to leave all of my stuff behind too? But what if I was thirsty in the hot sun? What would I do without my water bottle? I took a deep breath, figuring that this was what the call to simple living as a Franciscan lay missioner meant and decided to trust the process. So I boarded the bus with a hat, pen, folder, camera and water bottle, as close as I could get to fitting in with the other workshop participants.
As the hot sun rolled in and we were all out in the fields, I noticed small groups walking over to the shade of a tree and was soon called to join them. Once in the shade, I was handed a cup of water from a large pot and happily accepted it, marveling at the gathering created around sharing this drink together.
While we took turns drinking water from the same cup, one of the workshop organizers noticed my water bottle and said, “All the foreigners always carry around those water bottles. The strange thing is they never invite you to take a sip.”
He was right. Every other foreigner I knew in Bolivia always had a water bottle in hand and almost never shared it. In a country rooted in radical communal living, our North American individualism was an insult. While I was busy worrying about my own individual needs, an exercise fueled by my own cultural upbringing, these folks trusted that their needs would be taken care of collectively.
Nearly 10 years later, I still think about that day and how far I’ve come in unpacking the heavy burden of individualizing my needs. I still carry a water bottle around with me but, as is customary here in South America, I invite those around me to take a sip before taking one myself.
And I often find myself fixated on my memories of how I used to live, weighted down by the drive to accumulate, hoard and protect the resources that I believed belonged to me and me alone. I compare that heaviness to the relief that I now often feel living in a culture committed to the care of the collective. I still wonder about how we are called to release the burden of individualism, resting instead in the relief of knowing that we need one another and allowing that truth to empower us to care for one another.
How might the weight of individualism be weighing you down? What needs do you and your neighbors have in common? How might those needs be cared for collectively?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of Indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.