Thursday, September 8, 2011

Saying “goodbye” to Pops and Pakistan

Pops enjoying the simple things in life.
I’ve never been good at saying goodbye. (I don’t even understand why it’s called that – is there anything good about saying bye?) This past week, however, I had to say two of them – to the beautiful Pakistan and to my beloved Pops.

As I struggled through the two “goodbyes,” however, I realized something quite unexpected as a result of the repeated difficulty: my grandpa and the Pakistan that I've come to know/love have more in common than I would have ever imagined.

Joy through simplicity
Over the past few years, Pops faced a number of significant setbacks, beginning with Nana’s (completely unexpected) death in 2008 and concluding with his own pancreatic cancer battle (which I wrote about here) four months ago. Similarly, Pakistan (PK) has had a rough few years: Since my arrival in November 2010, there has been unbelievable ethnic/political violence in Karachi; a number of high profiled assassinationskidnappings, and bombings in Lahore; flooding in rural Sindh; rising inflation and power outages throughout the country; increasingly tense international relations with the US; and more.

Although both situations might appear helpless from an outsider’s perspective, what I’ve discovered is that Pops and Pakistan have been able to nurture hope even during the darkest nights. While even from my perspective this has often seemed to be a peace that passes understanding, I believe that a significant part of it comes from an unwavering ability to enjoy the simple things in life and to celebrate the small victories.

The list for Pops is endless: oatmeal with raisins, pinto beans, black coffee, the daily newspaper, morning walks, anything that involves eating or catching fish, games of backgammon and table tennis, cross country road trips, the Tampa Bay Rays, etc. Pops was a complex man who gained an inexplicable amount of enjoyment from the simplest things.

Similarly, PK is an incredibly complicated country – one which I am only beginning to understand – and yet it is clear that she has learned to celebrate the small victories, to embrace hope and joy wherever it’s found: Whether it’s a World Cup victory over West Indies (which we celebrated at Pharmagen), the laying of the first brick of low incoming houses outside of Lahore (an Acumen project where my friend Bryan worked), the launching of a new socially focused clothing store in Lahore (founded by my friend Babar), or even the 4th season of Coke Studio (where my friend Anam worked).
By finding joy in even these simple things, both Pops and Pakistan have developed an unshakable foundation of joy, one that has somehow held up even during the thickest storms.

High expectations, hard work
Although they’ve been able to discover this sense of peace, it would be wrong to imply that either Pops or Pakistan have grown complacent. In fact, the second similarity proves the opposite: Pops and Pakistan have both taught me the value of hard work and high expectations.

Pops believed that hard work was the solution to almost everything – through it, people could achieve anything they put their mind to. He learned this early on in life: when he got his first job as an 11 year old newspaper boy and again when he snuck into the Air Force at 17. He also strongly believed in the entrepreneurial value of making the most out of every opportunity. After my Grandma passed, for example, he eventually started dating again and joked around that he and I could have a double wedding. After he met Lee, however, he told me that he couldn’t wait around anymore, and he was married a week later (clearly making the most out of the opportunity)!

Over the past year, I’ve realized that PK also places a heightened importance on hard work, and specifically upon entrepreneurship and the private sector. At Pharmagen, for example, we work 6 days a week, for at least 10 hours a day (even during Ramzan, a month without food or water during the hottest days of the year). Similarly, the number of close friends who have started their own business is significantly unparalleled: from Babar (who I mentioned) in cause based clothing, to Asim and Zahoor (previous Acumen Fund Fellows) in leadership, to Ali in tech, Zehra in sustainable housing insulation, Saba in job training and girls education, and Junaid in renewable biomass energy.

Even though PK might not believe that every single problem can be fixed through hard work alone, examples such as these have shown me that people have high expectations (for themselves and for their country), they believe in a brighter tomorrow, and they believe in doing their part to create that tomorrow.

Unconditional love and community
Lastly, Pops and Pakistan place an immeasurable amount of importance on personal relationships, friendships and family. Pops was the type of person who was fueled by others. When I was little, my sister and I used to go on 10-15 day road trips across the country, just so we could go to some family reunion in Kansas or Oklahoma. And somehow, along the way, Pops seemed to have friends in nearly every town where we stopped – it was unbelievable. He would invite strangers over for dinner, he and I talked at least twice a month for hours on the phone (long distance), and he once hitchhiked from California to Kansas (probably just to meet new people). He believed wholeheartedly that all we have is one another other, that we are all responsible for each other, and that serving someone is the strongest form of unconditional love.

And to be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting to discover love and community this deep in PK. Not until I started talking with Dr. Ahmad, the Business Head at Pharmagen, when he began calling me weekly – back in early September – just to get to know each other.  Two months later, he picked me up from the airport at 3AM, and we had soda and tea at his house until 5AM. He treated me as a son from the very beginning, even though I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Shakeel, our Water Division Head, was the same (he once gave me Christmas presents for my parents in CA), as was my host family, the Acumen Fund office, Acumen investment companies, and nearly everyone I got to know. It was nothing short of amazing, completely unwarranted, and incomparable to anything but the love I’ve seen from Pops.

My family in Lahore
Which of course, makes it all the more difficult to say goodbye. But in many ways, also creates endless reasons why I don’t actually have to say goodbye at all, but rather, Allah Hafiz aor jaidi miltay hain (God protect you and see you soon). And of course, bahut shukriya (many thanks): For the joy and the peace that pass understanding, the heightened expectations and hard work that can truly change the world, and especially for the selfless servant hood and unconditional love that have already changed my life and thousands of others.