washington, d.c. via berkeley heights, nj. | daughter. sister. friend. international development worker. writer. advocate.


How did you choose the life you lead and was it a conscious decision?

In a big-picture sense, my life is the result of a series of deliberate decisions. By and large, those were made each time I hit a crossroads. That said, as I’ve walked the paths in-between, things have definitely developed more organically. For example, I firmly decided at age 22 that it wasn’t an option for me to pursue “meaningless” work and that I would prioritize having a career with a heart. What that looked like remained to be seen, but I at least had a framework and a line in the sand. Ever since then, fine-tuning my decision has been all about following my gut. That combination – establishing broad parameters and then seeing where they take me – has led to incredible places and experiences. It has allowed me to live out my dreams and honor my priorities while never feeling like I’m trapped or stuck on a predetermined path.

  

How did you choose your career?

In my senior year of college, with graduation and the “real world” looming dangerously, the fact that I had gone to a liberal arts school and gotten a degree in Comparative Religion certainly put me at a crossroads. After a series of crises and meltdowns, I got nudged in the right direction by one of my wisest and most matter-of-fact friends. We were at a party and I was telling her that I felt a strong pull toward international volunteer work and had never quite accepted the fact that family circumstances had preventing me from studying abroad. My friend pointed out that those circumstances had recently changed, and that there was no reason I couldn’t fly to the moon after graduation if I wanted to. She was right.

That night, I sat down at my computer and found a volunteer program that took me to an orphanage in Central America for several months. It was a big decision for me, and felt enormously risky at the time, but looking back it was pretty small potatoes. That said, it changed the course of my life. I met such inspiring people and connected with such remarkable children, it wasn’t long before I knew that some kind of international community development was where I needed to be. I’m forever grateful to my friend for kicking me in the butt. It was the first time that I fully embraced the philosophy, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” and I’ve never looked back.

  

What has been your greatest obstacle in life and how do/did you navigate it?

I actually have some chronic health issues that aren’t serious enough to be debilitating, but are persistent enough to put some barriers around how far I can push myself. Amidst my global gallivanting (since Central America, I’ve had the privilege of working in several other countries in Latin America, as well as Africa and Asia), it was a huge challenge for me to confront the fact that I will always be a little limited by my health. While I wanted to be the type of person who could bounce from one remote village to another, I had to recognize that I’m just not as useful to the causes that I’m passionate about when I’m in that setting. I’m far more effective when I’m in a place where I can feel my best. That has meant giving up the direct work that I did in Central America, but instead embracing an equally important role: spreading the word about things that deserve the world’s attention and mobilizing funds to affect change. It may not be the most romantic side of international development, but it’s where I’ve found a space that works for me.

  

How do you bring courage to a challenging situation?

This feels like the cheesy answer, but I try to remember that “challenge” is relative and I think of all the people I’ve known, written about or read about who do truly remarkable things just to survive each day. The most poignant example is actually my own father, who in 2006 passed away from ALS. If you still don’t know what ALS is after the summer of Ice Bucket Challenges, do look it up. Nothing quite compares to the courage that I saw from Dad in the face of such a horrific disease – or from my mother, for that matter. When I think of a woman with grace, my mom is my poster child.


How do you overcome fear?

I think of the quote from Adi Da, who was actually quite a crazy man, but was so incredibly right when he said, “Relax, nothing is under control.” This is one of the most difficult things for me to remember in my daily life, but I know it’s one of the most important. When all of the noise fades and one is faced with something that is truly scary, the only thing to do is follow one’s gut and move forward one day at a time. You have no idea what will happen. And therein lies the beauty.

 

What does failure/ or success look like to you?

Years ago, my dad asked me a question that was meant to make me stop and think, and to his credit, it still does: If, when you fail, you learn, do you ever really fail at all?

  

If you could do one thing to change the world, what would it be?

This is a question that I’m sure I could spend years thinking about, but the first thing that comes to mind is to replace the human tendency to fear the “other” with a tendency to be deeply curios about the unknown. In offering advice about how to develop compassion for even the most challenging people, Thich Nhat Hanh (the Vietnamese Buddhist monk) says, “When you understand, you cannot help but love,” and I find that to be profoundly true. Not everyone agrees with Thich and me, so I’ll just leave that quote for readers to ponder on their own.

  

Is there such a thing as work-life balance?

I think there’s just balance, period. And it’s absolutely achievable; you just have to hold yourself accountable to your own priorities. No one else will.

  

Do you ever feel guilty? If yes … what for?

Constantly and for everything. I’m working on it. It’s one part the product of being a life-long people pleaser; one part grasping for an unachievable sense of control; and one part a level of empathy that a therapist once told be was both my “greatest strength and biggest vice.”

  

What qualities do you look for in friends?

My closest friends are extremely sincere, thoughtful and self-aware. They are wonderful listeners and passionate about something bigger than themselves.

  

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

Younger Caitlin wouldn’t listen, but I’d tell her that self-love makes everything else fall right into place.

  

What is your best advice on how to live a graceful life?

Treat everyone as though they matter. Treat everyone as though they are just like you. Because they do and they are. The jerk holding up traffic, the insufferable parent at the soccer game, the lazy coworker, the judgmental relative: they are all people; people with baggage, trauma, stresses, dreams, strengths, weaknesses, joy and pain. They are just like you. And you are just like them. At least once in your life, to someone else, you have been every single one of those irritations and annoyances. When you engage with someone directly, make him or her the most important thing in your world at that moment. They need and deserve that kind of sincerity, and so do you. When you’re by yourself, make you the most important thing in your world, even if it’s only for 5 minutes. Check in with yourself, listen to yourself, and be honest and gentle with yourself.

Every day, I try to keep these things in mind and put them into practice. Every day, I fail at least a dozen times. But striving to rewire my perspective and always assume that these things are true – that’s the best way I know to live a graceful life.


j. jane side notes:

Caitlin works tirelessly as an advocate. we met in 2009 while working on a small project for the world food program. Her energy is contagious and her desire to help others is admirable.