I love my life.
I feel a vague sense of discomfort saying this out loud, even though it’s true.
To figure out why I love my life, I have to go back to a time when I didn’t breathe this easily, when I first noticed feelings of discontent niggling away at me. It was at university. Specifically, at the University of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, Canada.
I blame the niggling feelings on my father. He raised me to believe that helping people was the greatest thing you could aspire to. (When he was raising my brother and me as a single father, he always stopped for a stranded motorist and even in his 80s in Mexico he would jump into a river to help a fisherman push his boat over a sand shoal.)
So at university, having been taught the value of helping at an early age, I signed up to work on the student crisis line: I was a psychology major so that seemed right up my alley. I took weeks of training in how to help suicidal students. I graduated and was ready for my first volunteer shift. But I never showed up for it.
I had invested more time in almost giving than in actually giving.
A couple of years later, I was in Vancouver doing graduate work when my best friend Maxine Sevack, a freelance journalist chasing a story in Guatemala, was killed in a plane crash. She was 27. Before her death, Maxine had volunteered with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization. She had a “little sister” she spent time with every week. So I called the organization and offered to work with Maxine’s little sister. But later that summer I moved to Paris, and that was that.
Once in Paris, with a graduate degree in creative writing and a Canada Council grant, I sat down to write the great Canadian novel. I lived in the perfect writer’s garrett, a 7-floor walk-up at Maubert-Mutualité: 140 square feet tucked under a sloping Parisian roof, with a view of Notre Dame.
I decided I would read books for the blind in my spare time, and bought myself a second-hand cassette deck. (Yes, this was back in the day.)
I ended up starting a translation company instead.
All this while, through every failed attempt to do something for someone other than myself, I felt this feeling niggling at me, that I wasn’t doing what I should. Or could. That I wasn’t living a life that was any bigger than me.
How that finally changed is a story in itself. You may have heard it in one of my talks. But suffice to say here, my unbroken record of almost giving finally ended because of a chance encounter in Paris with Medecins sans frontières, or Doctors without Borders. The result of this was the founding of Traducteurs sans frontières in 1993 and Translators without Borders in 2010, two organizations that have donated around 27 million words to help make the world a better place.
I didn’t notice that the niggling feeling was gone until last summer, when I saw a poster at a Hong Kong bus shelter that expressed exactly how I feel now.
I guess you could say that after all those years of almost giving back, after the failed attempts to volunteer my time to help someone other than myself, I was finally free of that niggling guilt.
I was in Hong Kong to talk to Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia community about how Translators without Borders is helping to open up access to knowledge for people in the developing world, work I’m extremely proud of.
This is a project we have been running for the last couple of years through heroes like Enrique Cavalitto and Ildiko Santana. The goal is to start by translating 100 of the top Wikipedia health articles into 100 languages of the developing world. I believe strongly in this project because I’ve seen how people suffer and die because of a basic lack of knowledge, such as how to avoid malaria or why breast feeding protects babies. This is important stuff. Life saving.
On the bus shelter that day was a poster of a person on top of a mountain with legs and arms outstretched, fingers splayed as if tingling with excitement. The caption read, “I’m right where I want to be.”
And I realized that I could hold my head up, free of that sense that there was something else I ought to be doing.
I’m right where I want to be.