The Right Mix

Benito Aranda-Comer - Brazil


January 30, 2013

Finding the right equilibrium between realism and idealism has been my most intriguing and difficult experience here in Brazil. Every day I am faced with choices of how to prioritize my time, who to invest in relationships with, and where to think critically about that which I’ve experienced. For the most part there is a clear-cut ‘right choice’ and path that I should take and it dictates the majority of my day to day. However, as I delve deeper into my immersion here in Salvador I begin to understand the social stigmas that make the reality of the city and its people unique. My understanding of the societal norms has now made me realize how naïve and ignorant I was to have expectations around how I would be received here and how that would affect the pragmatism of my goals, oftentimes shaking my idealistic approach to problem solving. I so often yearn for an idealistic world, how things ‘should be,’ and am then left to live in a place where finding a balance is the most difficult thing to do.

I first realized the stark contrast between being idealistic and realistic when I started my apprenticeship with Instituto Aliança (IA). Given that it is one of Brazil’s largest NGOs, I was excited to represent Global Citizen Year, introduce different ideas from my culture, and above all else learn from those who I worked with. I was placed within the Esporte, Lazer, e Cidadania (Sport, Leisure, and Citizenship) program, which dealt with persons of all ages coming to Centros Social Urbano (CSUs), or urban social centers, to participate in daily classes that range from soccer, karate, yoga, gymnastics, and dancing. As time progressed and I continued to spend my time with IA I realized that my expectations for myself, and my American preconceived notion of volunteering, were inhibiting me, as I had arrived with grandiose ideas that lacked pragmatism. I arrived with the idea that if I created a relationship with the students at my CSU in the Pernambués neighborhood, I would be able to have group discussions about poverty, the treatment of women in Brazil, hunger, cultural differences, maybe even an English class. However, the children were not interested in large abstract ideas that they didn’t understand, they just wanted to connect through playing soccer with me–they just wanted to have fun. When I explained that I wasn’t there to necessarily play soccer they became more distant and less interested in me. The reality that I then faced was that of a cautious group of children that didn’t know how to perceive a stranger, let alone an American, and an unexplained disappointment in myself.

Like many in the United States, I have always been of the mindset that volunteering abroad and travel abroad programs with a volunteer aspect should be measurable or somehow provide a physical manifestation of the effort of those involved. Only now, being abroad and doing volunteer-like work, do I understand how narrow that rationale was. Imagine your entire time spent away judged on what you ‘did’ and not necessarily on what you learned or how you grew as a person. Raised with the cultural focus on ‘doing’ I came to Brazil having abstract volunteering ideas and was in no way shape or form ready to deal with the reality I faced here. I was ready to build walls and help form relationships with those I thought of as impoverished (who determines that anyway?) without the slightest notion of how that would be received. However, instead of building walls I ran into one that represented my hard earned epiphany: without realistic approaches to large global problems, no amount of idealism can solve anything. However, in life both realism and idealism are needed to move the world forward. Understanding that they walk hand in hand has been a worthwhile, albeit tiring, experience.

While until now I have not been able to start my English class or another discussion on topics pertaining to development and culture here in Brazil, I have been able to connect with the children because of my persistence and continued attendance in my Pernambués CSU. This relationship that I have now formed with them is essential in making anything happen at the center. The best take-away from this is the newfound balance between being idealistic and realistic. No longer must I sacrifice my inherent idealism for new realities; I am now able to work within my parameters. One example of this new balance is my ‘World Cup Pernambués,’ in which I will organize different groups of children into countries and have a mini World Cup. Another direct benefit of my balance is that I have and am continuing to develop my relationship with the children and co-workers at IA. If I had any goal before arriving in Brazil it was to make meaningful relationships that would blossom into significant memories that would make this experience unforgettable. As always, learning by way of listening, showing up, and conversing with others has gotten me to my most important self-realization yet. Balancing my hopes for creating an environment that ‘should be’ with ‘what is’ and redefining the relationship between idealism and realism has been crucial in my work here, and in my development as a young man.

Benito Aranda-Comer