The first class you take in international development is Indev 100. It’s a survey of some of the main issues and theories related to development over the last half century. The syllabus might read “First they tried this, and it didn’t work”, “Next tried that, and it didn’t work either”, “after that they tried something else, and that was just a total disaster”…on and on it goes.

Early last fall,  a friend of mine who was taking the course approached me and asked: “How do you not leave all your indev classes feeling depressed and overwhelmed at the world?”

A full answer to the question requires a story:

I was the translator for a group of Americans volunteering with nuclear refugees in Fukushima. One afternoon we visited what used to be a coastal town, with only rubble left of the houses that had once been a neighborhood. In the middle of it all, a local NGO had brought a shipping container, which they had transformed into a brilliant little cafe for the locals.

When we came inside, I began talking to an older gentleman, who opened up about his experience. I started translating for the rest of the group:

“I lived just over there,” he began, pointing to a row of ruined houses, “with my wife and daughter. We had lived here for years. On the day of the earthquake, I went to work in town. When the earthquake hit, we were sent to an evacuation centre. I tried to go home, but they wouldn’t let me. After, I heard from others that my family had gone outside to watch the wave…they thought it would be small, only two meters. Since they were outside, they didn’t hear the warnings on the radio.”

“Why didn’t they turn on the radio?”

At this point, the lump in my throat made retelling his story pretty hard. We stumbled through the end, tears filling a lot of eyes.

“Early the next morning, I drove home. I can’t get this image out of my mind; I crested the top of the hill over our city. The sunrise was beautiful, rising over freshly fallen snow. But everything was gone. The image is still there, locked in my mind, but they are all gone.”

It’s that same question: how are you not overwhelmed? How do you keep telling stories in a world of so much pain?

I grew up swimming on the same ocean that took that man’s family, and the image that I hold on to is that of a buoy. No matter how rough the water, a buoy always floats. We used to play with the ones that washed up on the beach; pushing them down into the water until we lost our grip and they popped up to the surface. You can’t sink a buoy, it always comes back up.

Fairway Buoy-blog

How do you stay buoyant in such a stormy world?

Here’s the thing: a buoy doesn’t float because of what it’s made of, it floats because of what it’s filled with.

I would like to tell you that I’m made of pretty good stuff, that I’m innately optimistic and intrinsically cheerful. But no matter how solid my personality, what keeps me floating is what’s inside.

For me, that thing is Jesus.

In response to my overwhelmed friend, I had a single answer: “I have to believe that there’s more to life. That I am not responsible for solving the world’s problems. To stay hopeful, I trust that Jesus’ love extends to every person, and that he will bring healing to this world.”

What fills me is the knowledge that Jesus died to overcome the brokenness I see in the world, and that he came back to life, setting the whole world on a similar path of restoration. I trust that this is true because in my life, Jesus has been a source of hope and peace in times of loneliness and tragedy.

Development is full of complicated and heart-wrenching problems. I often want to give up. But just as the air inside makes the buoy unsinkable, Jesus is my constant source of hope. I keep floating because he’s inside me.

This post is more personal than the last ones I’ve published. It ventures into an area where people have tightly held but widely divergent views. I hope that my story sparks conversation, not controversy, and that more than my words, my life will be the evidence of the hope inside me. 

Did I do a good job of communicating that? Where do you find hope?


5 thoughts on “Buoyant

  1. Well said Jacob… you are a talented communicator. The story of the old man was very moving. It makes me wonder whether I should take a course or two on International development to learn how it shouldn’t be done.


  2. Jacob, I stumbled on this and it brought back so many memories to me…I’ve seen you playing in that ocean and shared the horror and hope of the devastation. Keep looking for cosmos in the chaos and learning and working to bring it to others


  3. […] I know that I can never fully understand the pain that others go through. I know that I need distance to stay healthy and helpful. But I wonder whether the glasses metaphor isn’t right for this situation. Perhaps what I need is not a lens to block out the pain, but a rock to hold on to in the midst of it. […]


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