On Joy & Suffering

My life is captured in moments – photos, journal entries, memories. It’s always intriguing how one instant you share with a person can represent your entire relationship. During my nine months in Costa Rica, I grew to know  the daughter of one of my students. Maria* is a four-year-old soul that has taught me far more than I could ever teach her. Here is a blog post I wrote near the end of my time in that place:


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Day 242

Today my heart split in two, swallowing up all my homesickness. Little Maria flew up to me, latching her skinny arms around my neck and smothering my cheek in a sticky lollipop kiss. I held on to that moment, wrapped it in a fragile lining of hurting hopes, and laid it down next to other things I carry within me. Her existence wiggled in my arms and breathed in my heart. It hurt to tell her, but I had to.

Tengo que irme en dos semanas. I’m leaving two weeks from today.”
¿Pero por que? But why?”
“I need to work. I need to study.”
She looked at me, her elbows hugging my neck, fingers toying with the sun-bleached frizz-curls at the nape of my scalp. All her movement stilled as my reflection grew in her brightening cow eyes. The wisdom of children radiated from her.
“Why don’t you just stay and study here like my mom?”


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These goodbyes are what won’t stop haunting me – the ones that still don’t make sense. Why did I return to the States? To inflate that space between my education and that of a people starving to learn? How can I justify leaving a slum that was one-quarter of a mile wide and 45,000 people strong to live in a dorm that could be mistaken for a hotel? What did it say about my spirit that I would trade La Carpio for Lincoln Park? All of these questions continue to plague me, encroaching on my conscience.

While verbally navigating this pain that drains me of my inner-sunshine, a friend heard my words and spoke this truth: “Hannah, you know that all your suffering stems from joy.” It took some emotional distance to fully fathom this statement, but eventually my soul could comprehend what he was trying to say. Every muscle within me that aches for people on this planet is stretched and strained because of the deep love I have for them. And deeper still, the love they have for me. I complain that compared to most people, I have twice the memories, faces, and secret places to long for after growing up in the Pacific Northwest and then living in Costa Rica. I have two homes to miss.

I also have two homes to love.

And I recognize that one day I will go from this place too. It will be hard to leave Chicago, but if it wasn’t, that would mean I didn’t care.

The beauty is that just as we leave, we also return. Tomorrow I get to go back to Costa Rica, get to hug my host mom and sing laughter with my students. I get to share their passions and their sorrows. I get to see little Maria, a miracle who is also a product of pain. You see, Maria is the outcome of a man raping his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter until she had a child. That tender face is a consequence of tremendous abuse.

These are the stories that drown me. Hurt can cross cultures and leave all persons paralyzed with pain. Here is the hope: when you hold that agony, when it kisses you on the cheek, when its warm hands touch yours and the dark nights become pink dresses and her innocent voice names you, it is then that you see how suffering can birth joy.

*Name has been changed.

Hannah Holtgeerts hannahholtgeerts@gmail.com