I have always had a rather curious questioning mind. Aged three, for instance, I challenged my mom’s assurance that I couldn’t defy gravity by propelling myself from the edge of my tall bed… I hit the ground far faster than expected. Although school only inflamed my thirst for knowledge, maturity helped me discern questions I should explore from those I should not. Innocently thinking I was embracing Socrates’ wisdom, I grew complacent in believing that seeking knowledge in itself leads to high morals and a good, fulfilling life. Until an opportunity to visit Mexico arose.
After an eight-hour bus journey to a tiny village near Orizaba, Veracruz, I found myself standing face-to-face with Alfonso, a young citizen of Tuxpanguillo, Mexico. On the surface, he and I had nothing in common. His complexion: weak and gaunt. His clothes: ragged, torn. His face: dark, dirty.
My friends and I came to help him, I thought. We shared a simple meal and then toured in and around Alfonso’s and his friends’ humble homes, being warned at each stop against leaning on the wet cardboard that supported their shelters. Gonzalo, one of Alfonso’s friends, casually inquired how we were. Awestruck. The sights rendered us speechless.
Later, choosing four rocks as goalposts, we came together in an impromptu soccer field for a ‘cascarita’. I noticed Alfonso take my position on the opposite team. Below the surface, we were quite alike. Time with him showed me a boy who, although illiterate, consistently strove to help his single mother provide for her family, to do good by his neighbours, and to give back to his community. Alfonso radiated happiness; I could see his life was fulfilling.
But, without pursuing formal knowledge, how could Alfonso lead a good life? What was I missing?
We began our mission to install rudimentary tin roofs the next morning. Following hours of hard hammering, I climbed down from Alfonso’s family’s new roof, taking great pains to avoid puncturing the soggy walls. Looking over, I found Alfonso staring straight at me, warm tears nascent in the corners of his eyes. Paralysed, I could perceive nothing but the mouthing of his soft words. Alfonso incredulously gazed at the thin sheet lying protectively over his home. Though his mouth moved no more, he communicated a feeling that almost shook me off my feet. My simple work had given his family a blanket and an umbrella to stay warm and dry during wicked winters and relentless rains. I had had an impact on his life.
At the time, though, I was too naïve to appreciate that it was Alfonso who had had the greater impact on my life. Experiencing his fixed stare was so powerful, so moving, that I pieced everything together. Alfonso rooted his morality in his knowledge of his society. However, it was his use of that knowledge to help his mother, his family, his neighbours that brought fulfilment to his life.
I realised that pursuing knowledge in itself was not enough. Alfonso taught me fulfilment comes not from absorbing esoteric encyclopaedias, but from applying whatever you know to enhance the lives of those around you.
Knowledge empowers us with the capacity to effect change in people’s lives. Fulfilment, however, comes from actually making a difference. Alfonso taught me to take that extra step.
In the words of Worth School’s Head Master, Gino Carminati, the boys and girls at the School “are encouraged to discern their purpose in life and to learn to listen with the ear of the heart”. Guillermo’s original feature first appeared in a recent edition of the magazine Identity.