As a former member of the University of Michigan cross country, being fit and athletic has been a large component of my identity. Choosing to leave my athletic dreams to pursue my masters in Global Epidemiology was my first step toward lying down my obsession with exercise, and instead devoting my energy town serving my colleagues, community, and those in need. While this transition has allowed me to view my body as a vessel for service, instead of an instrument for manipulation to obtain higher performance, I know that exercise still brings purpose and comfort to each day. Therefore, prior to coming to Bangladesh one of my greatest anxieties was not being able to maintain more normal exercise routine and having to completely give up my athletic identity. This identity, and exercise, brought me comfort and I didn’t want to give up my comfort.
I am grateful that I have been able to maintain a little morning workout routine in Sirajganj. We have a small room off of our dorm room where I manage some squats, lunges, pushups, and core exercises, and sometimes my roommates and I will go for a long morning walk to see the sunrise. Though this routine brings energy to my day, I can’t deny that I miss running, swimming, and biking down the streets of Ann Arbor. I miss the freedom that comes from pushing my body to its limits alongside my friends. I am missing comfort.
Though I have given up some of my comfort to understand the lives of Bangladeshi communities, and hopefully be of some service to the organizations that I am partnering with, I still grip tightly to any comfort I can. This makes me wonder, “How often does my desire for comfort keep me from completely entering a community, completely understanding a community, or truly serving a community?”
While we spend our mornings in the village, each afternoon we return to our housing, where we have running water, electricity, a cleaning service, and a cook who brings us food each evening. In one sense, I think we need this sense of comfort so that we can get away and reflect on our experience, but the reality is that the people that we are serving do not have this chance to get away. Our perceptions of the community, are limited by the fact that we do not experience all of what they experience daily; we temporarily enter their lives and then go back to our own comfort.
I think that the global public health field’s removal from the populations that it is serving could be making it more of disservice, than a service. How do global health practitioners who sit in fancy offices far removed from the realities of suffering understand the consequences of the decisions that they are making? I don’t think they do, so next, I ask, “Why do we think we deserve this sense of comfort? And, how do we step away from comfort and into service?”
During my time as a student-athlete, it was learning how to find comfort within the uncomfortable that always led to greater reward; as I learned to embrace the discomfort of pushing my body to its limits, I became less obsessed with staying within my comfort zone. I think we must learn to do the same in global public health; as we learn to find comfort in service, human relationship, and entering into new communities, we become less obsessed with material comforts such as our normal exercise routines, favorite foods, or soft beds. Comfort is an innate human desire, but we get to choose what we find comfort in. As public health practitioners we are called to find comfort within the community we are serving, within our service, and within our passion to promote health equality. This does not mean that the process of learning to serve in this manner is going be comfortable; in fact it will be quite the opposite. I also don’t think that we are called to make this transition immediately. Our comforts have been cultivated since we were infants and thus it will take time to transform them. But, we must be willing to continually take steps in finding comfort in things that serve others, instead of ourselves.
For me this trip has been my first baby step to understanding how to find comfort in global public health service. I left the comfort of America for the first time to enter Bangladesh. I left the comfort of my athletic identity to instead use my body to serve others. And I left the comfort of my normal routine, to enter the lives of others. But I still have a long way to go; I still long for home, I still exercise, and I still yearn to return to my schedules and to-do lists. This will be a continual process, and I am excited to see how I can step alongside the public health field to transform our view of comfort so that instead we can continually seek service for the communities that we are entering.