The Comfort of Discomfort

Abigail Leibowitz with students at Mona Heights Primary School

If you Google “Jamaica images” you get sparkling beaches, white sand, emerald palms, and azure skies. But I just returned from Jamaica with images of rural squalor, urban neglect, insect-infested dwellings .. .   yet with sparkling-eyed children eager to learn.

Two weeks ago, I embarked on a volunteer trip to Jamaica with the NGO LearnServe International to learn about and find solutions to global issues by teaching children, planting on a co-op farm, and leading activities at a teen shelter.

Being comfortable while uncomfortable is what I struggled with most. In Jamaica, I witnessed the opposite of Google’s resorts. I had to abandon my privileged DC lifestyle of air conditioning, boutique shampoo, and an endless variety of foods to choose from. I came down with a bad case of culture shock.

Our first project at Mona Heights Primary School accustomed me to frugality. The classrooms were small, with no ventilation and lacking any technology. Yet the first grade children were eager to participate in the activities we had planned.

During our time at Mona Heights, I was in the “historians” group and our task was interviewing and photographing our Jamaican partners. Interviewing the principal and teachers about their struggles helped me to appreciate my privileged life, and empathize with their challenges. Meeting the loving children nudged me into becoming more open-minded, helpful, and comfortable being uncomfortable.

As we moved to our next project, I was ready to expect the unexpected. We traveled to Europe In The Summer (EITS) – a co-op farm in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains where we worked for three days. The narrow twists and turns of the bus ride to EITS was terrifying yet breathtaking. Every time we turned a tight corner I thought I might die. Yet I was awed at the vastness, peacefulness, and serenity of the Blue Mountains.  I felt a unique spirituality up there and later that Friday at sunset I was able to light Shabbat candles and share one of my most spiritual rituals.

Our quarters at EITS had a homey, warm vibe that correlated with the spirituality of the Blue Mountains. After working hard to organize a storage unit and consuming a tasty lunch, I thought everything was perfect. That is until I noticed LIZARDS – real, live lizards on the wall.

Everyone suddenly became anxious about insects and lizards in our beds. That night we couldn’t get through our evening meeting without my peers screaming because of the lizards. One of the directors of EITS told us during dinner to “go with the flow.” For the rest of the evening, every time I heard cicadas or saw lizards, I reminded myself to “go with the flow.” Being comfortable while being uncomfortable became my motto.

My team had discussed initiative as a necessary leadership characteristic. So, at the next project, the teen shelter at Mary’s Place, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and take initiative to lead a workshop about social entrepreneurship.

I worried: “Would people stay engaged? Would they absorb the information? What if I mess up?”  Putting my anxiety aside, I stirred up enough courage to teach the lesson I planned. Despite some difficulty engaging everyone, the lesson ran smoothly and I was proud that I had found it in me to take initiative.

The next day, the teen girls discussed their aspirations for the future. One girl, Marjorie, proclaimed that she wanted to be an entrepreneur who makes social change in Jamaica. I was gratified and encouraged that what I taught impacted at least one person. Stepping out of my comfort zone was key to discovering new skills.

On Tisha B’Av, corresponding this year to Sunday July 22, my fellow Jews will mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. Many will observe it by fasting, putting themselves in an uncomfortable state.

In Jamaica, getting accustomed to being uncomfortable opened my mind and helped me help others. Similarly, our Jewish fast days make us uncomfortable in order to protest intolerance and increase loving-kindness to all. Because in life, it is necessary to be in uncomfortable situations in order to grow. Don’t stay in your comfort zone; give priority to your discomfort zone.

Abigail Leibowitz is a rising sophomore from Silver Spring, and loves to dance and travel.

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  1. What wonderful insight from a young woman who certainly has more wisdom than many, many “adults.” And, how fine that she is choosing to use her fine mind to make a difference! Keep it up, Avigail.

  2. Dear Abbey…Your reflections and beautiful writing was deep and eloquent. I have lived in rural Mexico for many decades, and resonate with your discoveries at such a tender age. You are a gifted and sensitive writer, so I hope that you continue to write about your life discoveries, if only in a journal or in family letters that might someday surprise you to become material for a book. Keep staying open to the challenges that await you. Your observations are revelations.

  3. Thank you for both engaging in such meaningful work and sharing your insights on what it really means to work in service to others. Lots of people don’t get to this type of reflection in their travel experience, so I’m glad you’ve decided to share. Please continue to write about this experience–you’ll be surprised what other treasures you’ll find as the days and weeks go on.


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