Editor’s note: Missioner Catherine Sullivan shares a poem juxtaposing the societal norms of the US and the societal norms she experiences throughout her time on mission and her ministry in the Bolivian prisons.

These lives continue to baffle me.
They are lives lived entirely for others
                           —not in acts of heroic, sacrificial martyrdom, public to all and only half-heart.
            But lives lived quietly, fiercely, for their children, for their parents, for their spouse.

 

“What are your dreams?” the worksheets force me to ask them.
               The concept is unknown to them,
                             an incomprehensible luxury.
                                                         They stare at me blankly.
Let me rephrase:
              “What do you hope to do when you are free?”
The words of one of my favorite poets comes to my mind:
               “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

 

“Work, to help my children.”
Over and over again
            without fail,
                         no matter what the age or story,
                                       that is the answer.
             No dream job,
                          whatever pays.
The same drive that has them working around the clock
                           knitting and crocheting for pennies.
The same drive and “dream” that landed many of them here
                            —forced by injustices and a systemic negligence.
 

“Do you have any specific prayer intentions today?”

 

“For my kids,
              for my family,
                            for my freedom.”

                     Rarely does the response vary. 
                            If I know them very well, they add children’s names.

Part of me hurts with these responses
            —their lives are never their own.

 

But what thinking is that?                         
The thinking of a child              
born to a wildly independent (often to a fault) society,
built on the concept that we can be anything we want to be,
that we should reach for the stars,
no matter where we come from.
 

If we do not reach, if we do not                                           
fight                                                                  
and climb                                                
and stretch           for the stars,
there is an undercurrent                                                                
of understanding                                            
that we are somehow living              

a wasted life.

We are a people built on forced dreaming,                                                 
slowly and quickly running away from                                       
responsibility,                                                                     
personal debt,                                                        
family ties,                                                 
anything that may hold us down,
and society pushes this shedding process,
for the bettering of society…

And with this too, I hurt
—our lives are never our own.