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The We of I

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Since the recent end of Guatemala’s long civil war, stories have come out of the rural villages in the western mountains of this Central American nation. Most stories recount unthinkable violence leveled by the country’s military against the Mayan rural people. The other stories, the ones of heroism, seldom are told.

Marta Gomez grew up in a village that preserved and honored her Mayan culture. Central to traditional Mayan identity is its insistence of the primacy of the larger community. "Loving your neighbor" is more than just a virtue, it is one's entire identity, what some anthropologists of Mayan culture have called the “we” of day-to-day existence: to belong to something more encompassing than one’s own self.

For this reason, la violencia, the war’s physical destruction, tore at the heart of Mayan cosmology, of the Mayans’ understanding of the spiritual—that is, what it means to be human.

Marta Gomez is a survivor, though she continually lived in the shadow of war’s dangers. As a trained nurse, throughout the war, Marta acted on her ingrained sense of community by opening a health clinic for women—part of a Christian cooperative center. In these years, any formal effort by the peasant population to improve living conditions was viewed by the Guatemalan government as “communist infiltration.” Thousands and thousands of Mayans were arrested and killed for offering services to each other. Frequently, for any endeavor that could be construed as self-improvement, whole villages were wiped out, families murdered or scattered into the mountains. With that daily threat, and under the area military leaders’ constant suspicion, Marta dispensed medical care and health education for people with no other means to receive it. In her own mind, Marta’s life was meaningless unless it focused on the well-being of the people around her.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl relates his years in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He observed of his fellow prisoners that many of the ones who managed best in those cruel and deprived circumstances were those able to rise above their own sufferings to help the people around them. The “self-transcendence of human existence,” Frankl called it, meaning that “being human always points . . . to something, or someone, other than oneself.”

Two people, different in many ways, separated by miles and years: a highly educated Austrian Jew and a peasant woman in the Guatemalan hills. Both envision a life of value; both survived years of oppression. Viktor Frankl published his story in a book that has sold in the millions in several languages. Marta Gomez never expected her story to be told. She also never thought of the story as her own, but one that belonged to the world, whether the world might ever hear it—or not.
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