Cambodian cleansing, and, Feelgood Fridays
Tuol Sleng left a stain and a weight on my spirit, but just as Cambodia was home to this darkness, it also held the cure. The natural beauty of the land cleansed my heart with sunlit swims in Chi Phat waterfalls and a languorous afternoon in a seaside hammock, but the burden of spirit, of disappointment and doubt regarding the nature of the human soul, needed a different remedy.
It’s so easy to only see the negative. If I drive an hour across town, I’ll most easily remember the guy who cuts me off, the space cadet who can’t drive in a straight line, and the squad of sluggards too lazy to flick on a turn signal. I’ll remember those few negatives, without noticing the five hundred drivers who did everything right.
(Thank god I don’t have a car.)
This ease of negativity is most subtle and seductive when we’re sedated by the familiar, accustomed to all our privileges and gifts, alert for anything less than optimal. (Thank god I do have a passport.) When traveling, we can more easily reverse this orientation and focus on the positive, celebrate the joyous, and dismiss the uncomfortable as inevitable, but incidental.
Despite the afternoon’s shackled memories, when we spent the evening drifting through the light-hearted embrace of New Year’s revelry in Phnom Penh, it took a piece of that burden off my shoulders. Here were humans, having fun together, harming no one. And the following days in Chi Phat, whenever we sat down to a meal with our hosts or chatted with our guide, that human goodness was clear and warm, restorative.
Our last stop, modern Siem Reap and ancient Angkor Wat, combined both the cleansing of beauty and the rejuvenation of kindness. We stood under arching banyan trees that dripped down temple facades which have witnessed centuries, then got back in Mr. Chet’s tuktuk. With an easy smile, kind eyes, and something familiar about him, we liked Mr. Chet from the get-go.
“I’ve got it!” Lydia finally announced. “He’s Cambodian Manny!” Manny is a friend in Oakland, but Mr. Chet was already linked to here by an inspirational friend who founded Altruvistas, the incredible agency that helped me go Cuba and Venezuela. She connected me with Mr. Chet, and I was able to serve the same role, recommending him to a friend who does amazing work with children in Vietnam.
The negative tendency of perception might say “Both those friends are doing far more to help the world than I am” and feel quite boohoo about it. Or, I can foster the positive side that marvels “How amazing is it to exist in a world where so many people are doing so much good?”
On one side we have the darkness of war, torture, death and suffering, at Tuol Sleng and in the news. On the other is the healing light of human kindness, compassion, concern and empathy that we see in the faces of good people all around the world. The latter doesn’t get as much press as the former, but maybe we can deliberately focus on the positive stories, and the people doing wonderful things in the world.
To that end, I will try to blog about positive things every Friday. Feelgood Fridays? I’ll keep my eyes open, and if you hear of stories you’d like to share, I’m open to guest blogs and/or recommendations. Just a small balance to the headlines of horror, but maybe it will help orient towards goodness.
And hell, maybe I’ll even start noticing good drivers.