Meet Janessa Wells
MEET THE MUSE: Janessa Wells ~ daughter, friend, yogi, adventurer, front-line ebola responder, activist.
Tell us about yourself:
Let’s go with curious and courageous. (That’s one from me and one from my father!)
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness- those moments when life and all it encompasses, is simply not complicated.
What is the trait you are most grateful for in yourself?
My ability to laugh at myself. I find it prompts me to stop taking myself too seriously and begins the process of self-forgiveness for my perceived failure. (And I have definitely been known to take things too seriously and make my fair share of mistakes).
What is the trait you most cherish in others?
An “unreasonable” kindness, that effortless love some people project and live from. Sometimes I struggle to emulate this and find this quality in others utterly inspiring.
What is your most treasured possession?
My mother kept her wedding ring after my parents divorce, even though I know she had considered seriously throwing it off a bridge or into a volcano. After years of my asking, she finally gave the ring to me. In it I saw a reminder that I was created out of love and that we can return to that love. My parents were best of friends, married for almost two decades then they went through a nasty divorce. As a child it seemed endlessly ugly and angry, but through the pain they were both reborn into lives that switched them on and into new loves. They have now returned to a place of friendship, a place of once again being able to laugh together. When I wear the ring, not only does it remind me of home, where I came from, these two wonderful people I am so grateful to still have in my life but it also reminds me to be resilient, that all of life changes and transforms. That I’ve just got to have the courage to move with the ebb and flow. Nothing is ever final. Ever.
What talent would you most like to have?
I’d love to be able to whistle, in a completely ridiculous way. I come from a long line of great whistlers where all of my family can whistle sweet tunes. Me? After 31 years of practice, all I’ve got is a thin and famished sounding “hint” of whistle. I will keep trying, maybe in another 30 years!
What is your most marked characteristic?
Energy (perhaps too much if it!?)
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I too struggled with teenage issues and was rather angry at my current situation, so I made a high risk choice to attend a boarding school and move away from home at the age of 15. It may seem trivial, but it set the trend for the rest of my life- being able to make powerful choices through difficulty and trauma. Rather than allowing a sense of prevailing victim-hood to define my life, these opportunities to make hard choices, through traumas and heart-breaks have given me clarity, a life purpose of healing and the power of deep empathy that has connected me to men and women all over the world. I have been able to see these moments of “suffering”, or struggling, as foundations for resiliency and compassion; it has allowed me to continue to choose courageously, even when the choice is much harder than just changing schools or leaving home. This is my greatest achievement.
What do you want to be remembered for?
What is your motto?
My mottos seem to shift depending on what I’m going through, so perhaps my true motto is actually more about the courage to embrace flexibility and to be present with whatever life is throwing at you. This probably comes from hearing my mother say, when I was growing up and be complaining, or angry, or frustrated, “This too shall pass”. And she’s right, everything- the good, the bad, it’s all fluid, all ever shifting and nothing is permanent (even when we’d really like it to be). These last few months in Liberia were really challenging, as many of my friends were getting ready to leave (or had left), my job was reaching a pinnacle of intensity all while deep down I was terribly missing my family and in real need of time off. The assaulting nature of living/working in a fragile country was beginning to get to me. Then I’d hear my mom’s voice in my head, “This too shall pass”, and I’d be able to take a deep breath, practice detachment, be a bit more gentle with myself, and better able to cultivate the patience to be steady in the face discomfort. Thanks Mom.
Tell us about your work:
For the past (almost) two years, I have been working in Liberia, pre, post, and during the Ebola outbreak. During this time, I have worked at two different NGO’s and one private company. First as the Health and Wellness Program Manager for More Than Me where until the Ebola outbreak, my role was to create an after-school yoga program for girls from the West Point ‘slum’ integrating wellness, health education, and reproductive health with leadership and advocacy. When the Ebola outbreak forced us to temporarily close our door, we got to work with county health teams and Ministry of Health operating ambulance teams, in the field nursing teams, and I became the director of a center for high-risk contacts (children) who needed twenty-one days of safe quarantine before being reunited with their communities. Many of these children were, or would become Ebola orphans. Some became survivors themselves, beating the virus, only to be left without family. It was a truly heartbreak role. I was then hired as the Emergency Program Coordinator at SOS Children’s Villages. My focus became child protection, finding long-term “solutions” for orphans, and creating access to health care for Ebola survivors. My most recent position was as the Country Director of a private company implementing logistical and technical expertise to NGO’s rebuilding Liberia post-Ebola i.e. coordinating WASH programs, building incinerators at health clinics, and providing potable water for the Ebola Treatment Units.
What job | project | goal are you working on now?
As of this month I will be returning to the States to start my own wellness company, blending my love of health education, yoga and international work. We offer access to wellness for those operating in high stress environments via yoga, meditations, life-coaching and community. I want others to know that they can find resilience, enjoyment, and thrive even through times of high stress and trauma and that these experiences can actually make them healthier!
What is your “why” behind it?
I have seen first hand and experienced the pain of burnout- it’s ugly and leaves deep psychological scars. I have also seen first hand why humanitarian’s can become some of the most jaded, burnt out and frustrated people I have ever met. Just one study of aid workers in Uganda, published by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, found that 68%, 53%, and 26% of respondents reported symptom levels associated with high risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), respectively. Between one quarter and one half of respondents reported symptom levels associated with high risk regarding measured dimensions of burnout. Female workers reported significantly more symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and emotional exhaustion than males. These rates are unacceptable. Yoga saved my life. It’s taken me through trauma, depression, burnout and fear, providing the conduit of healing, courage, resiliency and the ability to operate more effectively and efficiently, even while under intense pressure. I want to share this with those taking action out in the field through the “buy- in” of their organization or company. The more we provide these people with stress management skills, peaceful minds/hearts and a supportive place to access healing, not only will their lives be changed but also those of their beneficiaries or clients.
What skills | qualities do you need to cultivate for it?
Very simply business financing and management to complement the creativity and gumption to start banging on doors.
How can we support you and your work?
Working on others start-ups has been easy, as there’s not a lot of risk to myself, but now, as I dive into my own, I’d love any direct advice or input from others who have done it. Lessons learned, useful software, funding opportunities, what they wish they had known before starting, skills they wish they had had, etc. Also, Some folks to come learn and experiment with me on my courses and workshops..to start this October.
Share your inspiration with us:
Climbing mountains – getting outside in the beauty of the world, taking in it’s grace and magnificence – be reminded that we are all apart of it. Being in awe of the inspiring honesty of Mother Nature is so humbling, yet, it makes me feel completely alive, powerful and capable while totally insignificant. When I can take all this outdoor glory to then connect with community, participating in interesting debates, being pushed to think deeper and broader and learning beyond my “limits”. When I can then ask hard questions of myself and others.
If you could inspire one change in yourself, what would it be?
Self doubt and my very deep insolent streak which has both helped me to succeed and also provided the opportunity to learn things the hard way, this then of course feeds any thoughts of self-doubt. As I’ve gotten older, I have felt this begin to shift but sometimes that voice in the head that says, “Why you?”, or “You are insane to think you can do this”, sounds so powerful. I’d like to quiet that voice and need to be insolent.
If you could inspire one change in the world, what would it be?
I would love to see that even in the polarization of our populations, even with people disagreeing strongly that we could cultivate a respectful listening to each other, being open to others point of view while cultivating a tenderness for one another.
Where do you look for inspiration in your daily life?
As I was writing the answer for this question, my boyfriend made the comment that it sounded like a laundry list, “that it seems you get inspiration in all your life!”. I tried to figure out why this was a bad thing- for I do look for inspiration in all areas of life! From my morning cup of coffee, to stepping onto my mat, to reading new poetry or research papers, and wandering the streets taking in new sights while people watching. All of these things bring me inspiration, for our world is an incredibly interesting place, and I am continually in awe of it, even in it’s routine.
Which historical figures have inspired you?
Those who have been willing to explore frontiers both within and without, speak new ideas, to push the many different forms of boundaries have always inspired me. Those like Amelia Earhart, Einstein, Rumi, Machiavelli, Sir Edmund Hilary, Ernest Shackleton, Marie Curie, Queen Elizabeth I, Hafiz.
Who are your living muses?
My close friends that keep me laughing and always surprise me with the many different paths they’ve taken and all they’ve accomplished, my boyfriend who has taught me what having a real partner feels like, my mother for keeping me honest, my father for always sharing big love, and my step-mother for her different points of view and asking of hard questions. My Liberia staff who has done so much with so little as well as being incredibly courageous and kind. Teachers of the like of Anna Forrest, Kelly McGonigal, Pema Chodron, Marianne Elliot, Judith L. Herman, and Stephanie Snyder also keep me going.
Want to share a quote or a poem or a song lyric that inspires you?
My two favorites as of late:
“Your life is a sacred journey. It is about change, growth, discovery, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply, listening to your intuition, taking courageous challenges at every step along the way. You are on the path… exactly where you are meant to be right now… And from here, you can only go forward, shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing, of courage, of beauty, of wisdom, of power, of dignity, and of love.” ~ by Caroline Adams
“It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.” – by Nora Ephron, on the issue of career and family, that I think also applies to life in general.
Now, let’s dive deep:
What are you most passionate about?
Transforming fear into resiliency and courage, pain into healing and happiness. To inspire others that trauma and suffering are not a death sentence, but rather, can be an opportunity for greater love and empathy, a way into discovering your path and purpose. As Rumi says, “The cut is where the light enters.”
What is holding you back from living the life you want?
I think I’ve had this false thought that one day, someone is just going to hand me the life I want because I’m “amazing” or “cool”. That I wouldn’t have to work with serious dedication to make that life happen. Forgetting that I am responsible for making the life I want, for getting out there. Be willing to try. Be willing to fail.
What is your greatest fear?
Being completely vulnerable, to stand completely “naked” in my insecurities and fears as well as my power, owning them all, and allowing others to see me just as I am, not as I want to be.
What has been your greatest life lesson?
That I don’t have to fight myself or others. Growing up with two very large, very opinionated older brothers, I felt I always had to fight for a voice, fight to be respected, fight for dinner. It made me tough but as a partner, a leader, a boss, it’s not always the right answer. I have had to learn how to soften, to be gentle with myself, to accept surrender, and that I can be be wrong without it meaning that there is something wrong with me.
Disconnect. For example, Liberia will always haunt me, for I have seen/felt so much continual pain here, suffering of the human race on a scale I never knew, poverty, cycles of abuse, corruption, and the long-term damage those cause. Even with billions of dollars of aid and two stable presidential elections, the country is still struggling. People minds and hearts are still struggling. As society and humanity, not only have we failed to fix the symptoms (and not just in Liberia) but continue to ignore the root causes. My experience has taught me that it’s not an easy fix, rather a complex, dynamic, fluid problem that requires tough choices and difficult actions. As filled with compassion as I am for the leaders in power, I am also infuriated. Is this the best we, as humanity, can do? How have become so disconnected, apathetic?
How do you break your own heart?
When I disconnect from that deep guiding voice within, or when I chose to purposefully tell it to shut up. Essentially, when I don’t follow my heart and intuition, allowing to take me away from self-care and purposeful action.
What part of your story do you keep leaving out?
During my two years in Liberia, and I suppose in life in general, I have not always been who I’ve wanted to be. I have made choices that are selfish, childish, uncompassionate, and completely out of alignment with what I want to create in this world. Choices made from fear, anger, and burn-out. Choices that have hurt my loved ones, my staff, my outcomes, my effectivity. When people tell me they are proud of my work here, or try to point out how much we’ve done, or how impressed they are, I can’t always hear them. Sometimes all I can see is the shortcomings, my “failures”, my regrets. Accepting that I am (and we all are) both human and holy has been incredibly difficult.
What has held you back from sharing it before?
Because it’s difficult to admit that a) I want to be perfect and b) that it’s simply not possible- it requires being vulnerable (remember that deep fear?), and I also suppose that it’s sharing something that “strong” women are not “supposed” to admit.
Thank you for the inspiration. xo, muse.
Comments are closed