A grieving brother sets out to find renewed hope and purpose in Guatemala.
By Jeff Wenzler, Arts ’97
One minute I was going about life by simply fulfilling my daily wants and needs. The next minute, I was reeling from a tidal wave. It was my 20th birthday, and all that I had taken for granted changed when my brother Joe’s drug addiction stole his life and his sweet smile from our family.
After laying Joe’s body into the cold Wisconsin autumn earth, I stared at his gravestone searching for meaning when my gaze fixed on the etched dates marking his birth and death. My thoughts were angry, confused and even selfish. Why did he have to die so young? Why in such a tragic way? Why on my birthday?
Suddenly my thoughts shifted and I began to think about the space of time between the two etched dates, the space representing the days of Joe’s life and how he had used his days to touch the world.
Then I thought about my own space, 1973–20??. My space had no purpose yet — at least none I was aware of — and I’d already lived roughly one fourth of my life. I wanted to define my space. I wanted my space to represent making a difference. I had to discover my purpose, and that required taking a leap of faith and reaching beyond my comfort zone.
Within three months of Joe’s death, I stood at a departure gate at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee waiting for my flight to Guatemala, hopeful this trip would be a beginning.
A day later I walked across a mud-packed playground covered with rain-filled potholes and entered the first of four corrugated tin-roofed, cinderblock classrooms in Santo Tomas, Milpas Altas, Guatemala. The principal introduced me to the children, then turned to me and said, “OK, teach.”
That was 23 years ago, but time hasn’t faded my memories. I remember seeing awe in the eyes of the children in my class, and I remember all of the students crowded at the doorway, waiting to get a look at me. I felt like a deer in headlights. The thoughts racing through my mind while I turned pink with embarrassment nearly froze me: “What am I doing? I’m not a teacher. What did I get myself into? I don’t even speak Spanish.”
My comfort zone was in a different time zone. Luckily my defense mechanism kicked into action. I looked out on the class and calmly said, “uno,” and invited the children to repeat the word. “Uno,” they responded softly. I then said, “one,” and they responded awkwardly, “gwon.” I said, “dos,” with a little more confidence, and they responded, “dos,” with similar confidence. I shouted, “two,” which they followed with a loud, “two.” I then roared, “tres, three.” That’s when it happened. They roared back, “three.” Could it be this easy? Could I be teaching? Could they be learning?
That day in a simple Guatemalan mountain village classroom, the teacher in me was born. I taught numbers, letters, colors and simple phrases (all learned from my $4.95 How to Speak Spanish in 30 Minutes a Day handbook). In the morning, I taught kindergarten. My little Guatemalan students became my saving grace. The songs and dances, tears and laughter worked to melt away my grief. I was discovering the truth in Mahatma Gandhi’s quote: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
When I wasn’t teaching, I was riding buses and walking around the market, asking questions, making a fool out of myself by floundering through my “Spanglish.”
I had found my addiction; I was addicted to serving others, although the beauty of the matter was that I was the person receiving gifts. I learned that stepping out of your comfort zone to help someone is the most potent teacher, that life is an opportunity to discover purpose in the spirit of service. The Gospel message to reach out to others in compassion, solidarity and service is not only a responsibility and calling. It is also a recipe that nourishes the soul.
I wanted more and began searching for more opportunities to serve around the world. I sought wisdom from mentors. I dusted off my Bible and took classes in education, graduating from Marquette and going on to school at Boston College, where I earned a master’s of education degree.
This purpose-filled path led my search for understanding the human condition to a corner of Kingston, Jamaica, to a landfill where everything unwanted decays. The poorest of the poor survive by searching the landfill for food, for materials to build homes, for anything with trade or sale value. The smells are unbearable and the conditions incomprehensible. Hidden among cesspool trenches, heaps of scrap metal and mounds of decaying trash live a resilient people who have a tireless work ethic, uncanny hope and tremendous faith.
One day after spending time with a boy playing with a soccer ball in the dump community, I noticed he chased the bus we rode back to our suburban comfort. I wanted to know where he lived. I wanted to walk in his shoes — if only for a short while. I wanted to share with others how they too could become addicted to service.
I didn’t know it at the time but that desire would grow into the concept for filming a documentary about people who live in significant poverty. Our film, 10 Dollar Perspective, highlights the hope and resilience of a few of our six billion global brothers and sisters who live on less than $10 a day.
To this day I live with the wise words of Father Michael Himes, one of my professors at Boston College, echoing through my heart and mind. Father Himes said that when contemplating your calling in life, ask yourself three questions: What brings you joy? What are you good at? And how does that joy benefit others?
This simple reflective exercise moved me to found an international servant leadership organization called Pivotal Directions to unite people across socioeconomic lines, to walk with the faith-filled people of the Riverton garbage dump community and hopefully soften the barriers surrounding a marginalized people.
My talent is the humble courage that allows me to step outside of my comfort zone and lead others to new perspectives. The benefit is determined by those who hold hands in solidarity and create a new reality of dignity.
When I sat down to write my book, The Pivotal Life: A Compass for Discovering Purpose, Passion & Perspective, I began unpacking all the pivotal moments on my journey in order to share with others how they, too, can find the meaning of life, love, family and career purpose.
The “pivotal” moments in life are those that have the power to move us in directions that are at first unimaginable, like stepping into poverty with an open heart. These special moments may not make sense at first, but we should still allow them to touch our hearts so that something much bigger can take over and push us forward with a greater awareness of purpose.
Living a pivotal life is not about avoiding adversity. It is about knowing how to learn from and live with the adversity and challenge that are part of every life.
Recognizing that I am on a path that intersects with others who also encounter potholes and pivotal moments makes the shared journey more purpose-filled. We are responsible to each other. Ordinary people living for others is an extraordinary life, and the passion that soars through my veins gives me hope that the life I live will truly be called pivotal.
Jeff Wenzler, Arts ’97, is founder and executive director of Pivotal Directions Inc.; award-winning author of The Pivotal Life: A Compass for Discovering Purpose, Passion & Perspective; documentarian; co-founder of The Center for Servant Leadership and Civic Engagement at St. Thomas More Catholic High School in Milwaukee, Wis.; and motivational speaker and blogger. The documentary 10 Dollar Perspective is posted online at pivotaldirections.org.