I was in Uganda, gathering stories on behalf of a client. At that time, Uganda was Ground Zero of the AIDS epidemic. The disease had devastated parts of the country, killing nearly all adults under 60. The tranquil beauty of the countryside gave the impression of the richness of life. The reality was a place as ruined as if there'd been a nuclear holocaust.
I was visiting some of the hardest-hit communities. We saw no adult men or women, other than white-haired elderly ones -- but there were children everywhere.
Most of my interviews were with older women. They'd ended up caring for their grandchildren after their own children died of AIDS. They typically had a dozen or more grandchildren in their care, all orphans, all with no source of care but grandma -- who struggled to feed them all.
In one especially devastated community, an old woman approached me and asked if I was a priest. I told her I was not.
"So minister," she said, then hurried away. I learned later that the community experience was that the only white people who visited them were clergy. And if I wasn't a priest, I must be the next best thing, a minister.
A few minutes later, the old woman returned. She was holding a baby. She motioned me to follow her. We walked a few yards, pushing through a thick tropical forest until we emerged into a clearing the size of my dining room. The ground was a square of black soil, raked into steep furrows.
"Reverend bless," the old woman said, motioning at the ground.
She wanted me to bless the garden plot. To invoke God's power on the urgently needed crop.
And then, before I could even start to wonder how you bless a garden, she thrust the baby into my arms. "Bless baby," she said.
I stood there at the edge of the garden plot, sleeping baby in my arms, and wondered what to do. I felt profoundly uncomfortable, terribly inadequate; I wanted to beg off, to explain how I was the wrong guy, to get away.
Fortunately, an insight came to me: I had no choice but to go through with the blessing they sought. I needed to figure it out and just get on with it.
My discomfort was nothing compared to their need for blessings. If I'd refused, it would have been merely an awkward extrication from an awkward situation -- to me. To them, it would have been a crushing disappointment with potentially fatal repercussions. What sort of clergyman would do that to them? Or, as I asked myself, What sort of human being would do that to them?
I learned that day that sometimes the role is bigger than the person playing it. That sometimes doing the necessary thing can be seriously uncomfortable -- but that is no reason back out.
This issue comes up in my work quite often in the form of a nonprofit leader who balks at signing a fundraising message he or she doesn't like.
The less experienced ones say, "This is just dumb. It'll never work. I know that because I wouldn't respond to it."
The more experienced ones say, "I realize this is how you motivate donors to give. But I don't talk this way! It makes me uncomfortable."
The true leaders (experienced or not) say, "I don't understand this, but I'm willing to sign if that's what it takes to get people to fund our cause."
The real leaders get it -- a lot quicker than I did: sometimes you have to fake it and bless the baby and the garden. This may not be why you showed up to do the job, and you may feel unequipped to do it -- it may seem over-the-top weird. But a role has been given you, and you need to take it.
I don't know if my blessings in Uganda that day had any efficacy on the garden. Or the baby. No doubt I got it wrong, but to this day I cherish the memory. It was one of those rare moments when the divine gets mixed up in normal life and leaves you changed. I still think about that baby sometimes. He'd be a young man by now. I hope he's having a good, productive, joyful life.
Life is that way. There are times you have to push aside your sense of who you are and what you're about in order to perform the role that you've been placed in.
So play the role; write the letter you think you'd never respond to. Or sign that letter. That's how you participate in the strange mechanisms of the world. It's you how transform the world around you. And yourself.