A few weeks ago I was sitting in the backseat of a rental car with my mom in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. My father needed to mail a parcel and we sat waiting for him outside the post office watching a wealth of diversity pass by. During my time in Israel I was constantly in awe of this diversity; so many people from so many backgrounds and belief systems residing in such a small place. Everyone seemed so very different, and yet much the same. That morning we had breakfast with a Jewish mother and daughter and watched their interactions. Now we sat in the silence of our rental car watching a Muslim mother communicate with her well covered daughter. We observed the obvious differences in dress, mannerisms, languages, etc. and I quietly thought about the different struggles each passerby must face. As I was pondering these things my mother began a story as she so often does.
“Do you remember when we were here in the 90’s and visited our friend who was working as an undercover journalist living in the Old City? When later asked to share her observations of the many struggles Muslim women face she was expected to give a long list of grievances on that subject. But she only said this. ‘All women share the same struggles. In every country our struggles are the same.’
I have been thinking about this ever since.
We frequently get questions about what its like to live in Haiti. The questions are typically the same over and over asking about how different and hard things are in Haiti compared to the developed world. The typical response to our answers is, “I don’t know how you live there. I just don’t think I could do that.” So I was recently surprised by a new question I don’t remember being asked before which asked, “Do you ever feel sorry for those of us living here in North America?” My initial thought was, “Well that’s a switch! Most people say they feel sorry for us living in Haiti.” I believe it all comes down to a matter of perspective on our circumstances.
per·spec·tive: a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view.
For example, when my kids first came back to America after our first three years in Haiti they were pretty confused over their perceptions of how others thought about us. We had somewhat prepared them to encounter and expect a much different standard of living compared to Haiti but we had not imagined how this would be directly applied upon us by others in America.
Daughter: “Mom, why do people here think we are poor?”
Me: “What? Why do you ask that?”
Daughter: “Because a lot of the people here (in America) treat us like they treat the poor Haitians when they visit Haiti.
Me: “How so?”
Daughter: “Well, that one lady always comes up to us and just hands us money when it’s not our birthday or Christmas and without asking our parents if that’s ok. And other people give us candy and toys and other presents. Sometimes they are your friends but other times you tell me you just met them for the first time. Is this normal? Sometimes I see people hand you or Daddy money. I think they think we are poor or something. Why would they think that?”
Me: “Well, they might think that because they are comparing our living circumstances in Haiti to theirs in America. You do not think we are poor because you are comparing us to the people considered ‘poor’ in Haiti. Many people in Haiti think we are very rich. We get called ‘you rich’ all the time in Haiti and we are rich compared to many of our neighbors. I’m sure that’s why this is confusing to you. But most Americans would not consider us rich. Sometimes people give us money to support our family or others we help in Haiti. I think when gifts are given to you children it is because friends and family and even strangers are excited to meet you and just want to spoil you with things you don’t usually get in Haiti. This is somewhat the same way Americans express their generous and loving spirits that we see when some come to Haiti. It’s the way they show they love and care. Sometimes in their eagerness people don’t think about whether their actions are appropriate. We have certainly witnessed this in Haiti and you have occasionally felt this America. The way a person responds to others who live somewhere different or just live differently (even if it is right next door) is usually a matter of their perspective.
Back to answering the question asked of me recently. The answer to the question and my perspective on this is, “No. I don’t feel sorry for people in America because I believe our struggle is the same.” The question suggests that our struggle is different because of where we are. Those who ask the flip side of this question feeling sorry for those living in places like Haiti suggests the same. If you feel pity for someone who lives differently (or I will add below whatever your personal means are) it suggests (at least on the surface level) that you believe a person can arrive at a level of contentment that is based on circumstance. Both sides of that question point to where in the world someone is and beg to reason that place defines their struggle (or lack of). I’m writing this to tell you that when it comes to the struggle, location doesn’t actually matter one iota. It doesn’t matter where you live in this world, how big your house is or if you don’t even have a bank account. The struggles common to mankind are indifferent to our individual circumstances. Everywhere. The struggle is a matter of perspective.
The struggle is contentment. And where and how and who we turn to find it.
The most common response we get when asking short term visitors about their Haiti experiences is that, “The Haitian people are so joyful despite their lack. Listening to them worship is such a humbling experience. We are ‘blessed’ materially but they are blessed spiritually.” All of these things can be true. They can also give a false impression of the whole truth. Let’s think through this with a not-just-returned-from-my-first-trip-to-a-third-world-country-culture-shock-response. Yes, Haitian people can still be joyful despite almost unbearable and uncontrollable circumstances. I love and admire them for this. I have witnessed Haitian mamas lifting their hands in praise while living in tent cities after earthquakes and hurricanes have ravished what little they once had, after losing children to poverty and sickness. But do you not know this is true of you, my North American friends, too? Because I have also watched you still praise the sovereign Lord through cancers and other devastating illnesses, loss of homes due to fire, storm or lack of finances. I have watched as you have buried your own beloved children. I’ve watched you be incomprehensibly joyful in spite of unfathomable loss too. The scenery around you may be different but the questions, the pain, and the heart struggle is the same. When life does not go as we hope, when tragedy strikes, when our resources are spent, where and to whom do we turn? Is joy still possible? Is contentment still realistic?
Don’t get me wrong. It is true that life in Haiti is generally harder. It isn’t fair that children die of preventable diseases, lack of a few dollars or hospitals on strike because the doctors haven’t been paid. It isn’t right that a mere handful of extremely wealthy people control and maintain the deplorably dire circumstances of the rest of the country while they sit on their boats and privately owned beaches sipping cocktails. I have sat on their boats and beaches and listened to their perspectives too. And I’m here to still tell you our struggles are all the same from the richest beach resort owners to the single mom squatting in a banana leaf hut she rents for twenty dollars a year. I love the example of Job from scripture. Job was blessed both materially and spiritually. Yet even when tragedy struck his entire life, Job’s material and physical circumstances did not change his spiritual attitude. He served God faithfully in both complete abundance and catastrophic loss. He may have had his share of “why me?” questions but neither his former wealth nor his state of utter lack are what he put his stock in. His life had purpose beyond the wavering conditions of this life. He knew Who he was living for whatever his lot in life. We all have this choice no matter our circumstance. The book of Job is considered the oldest book of the Bible. Thousands of years later we have still not arrived. Our struggle is still the same as Job’s. And our choice is still the same.
The apostle Paul also speaks to this situation. The often taken out of context verse, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) is tooted as a mere platitude. However, Paul is not writing to say I can do anything I set my mind on because of Christ. He isn’t saying life is fair and we will be able to overcome our circumstances because God will give us favor. Paul’s life story is instead communicating through his letter to the Philippians that he has learned how to be content in ANY circumstance. And we can too. Wherever we are, in sickness and in health, in the palace or the prison pit, we can do all things. But we cannot do them without Christ. When we take our eyes off our temporal conditions and place them on the eternal Jesus, we can experience “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) and have a perspective of contentment. And that is the secret with no other recipe.
We are often perplexed by the realities of haves and have nots in our world. We sometimes feel “blessed” that we are not like others less fortunate than we consider ourselves. We may find contentment out of reach when our circumstance never seems to be enough. Yet deep down we are all the same sinners in need of the same Savior.
You may see Haitians singing with abandon in church. We see their struggles when they leave the church building; the intense family fights, the anger towards their neighbor, turning to voodoo when those prayers heard in the church building didn’t get answered in the way or timeframe they hoped. You think your North American kids struggle with entitlement issues? You may think our kids don’t simply because they live among the poor in Haiti. This should give them a different perspective, right? A different perspective on the realities of really hard things, maybe. But eliminating entitlement issues? That would be a big, fat, NO. Would you believe me if I told you that even the poorest of the poor struggle with the same entitlement issues too? Oh yes. They do. I know it’s hard to believe the illiterate single mom who has experienced more loss than one can imagine, living in a house she made herself with sticks and stones, not knowing where the next morsel of food to feed her barely surviving family is coming from could possible share the same extreme entitlement struggle with the American twelve year old demanding the newest iPhone. Their circumstances are vastly opposite. But their heart struggle for true contentment is still the same. When I first encountered this unexpected truth it hit me like a ton of bricks. We expect entitlement to come from a place of privilege. Because we don’t really believe we are all the same.
The book Toxic Charity shares:
“When you give once you illicit appreciation. Give a second time you create anticipation. Give a third time and you create expectation. You give a fourth time, you create entitlement. You give a fifth time, you create dependency.”
I cannot express in words how tragically true we have found this to be in Haiti. But why? It doesn’t make sense? Or does it? It is difficult to relate to others what we cannot relate to ourselves. I know this quote is referring to the negative contributions of foreign aid. I know I can’t relate to what its like to be a black man in America or a single mom living in a banana leaf hut in Haiti. I know the circumstances we struggle with are different. However, I have seen and believe that the struggle within and for our sin filled heart’s response is the same. If I’m claiming this, I suppose I better apply it personally. So I asked myself the following. When God leads people to serve and give to us in various ways do I stay in a place of appreciation? How often after receiving a gift have I quickly anticipated that another favor is to follow? If provision continues how easily do I come to expect it and want more of it? When something awful happens what is my response? Is my contentment dependent upon circumstance? Or can I truly say my dependency is in Christ alone? If I’m being honest, I’m just like my Haitian neighbors and the Israelites walking through the desert. God gives freedom. I want Egypt. God gives manna. I want meat. God gives meat. I want ____(fill in the blank). The struggle continues.
How often do I forget about the years we sought refuge from the heat huddled with our children on the moonlit balcony fighting off mosquitoes and reading missionary biographies of similar struggles with only a flashlight for light. I used to be really thankful for flashlights. God then graciously provides a generator after three years. Not more than a few weeks later I had easily accustomed once again to having almost 24/7 electricity. All of a sudden I find myself in a wild entitlement fit of rage when my fan stops working and the boy we sent to buy gas for the generator is taking too long. How does that happen so fast? Was I better off without the fan? Is the acquisition of a generator really the root of creating my entitlement to a fan problem? I will say there is something to living the simple life. I see many others reaching for the SIMPLIFY notion as well. There are whole television shows devoted to demonstrate how much better it is to live in a Tiny House. I used to buy into this. The stuff is the problem. Get rid of the stuff. Have another garage sale. Send your old clothes to someone that needs them in Haiti. (I’m just kidding. Please don’t do that last thing I said.) I’m not saying good things can’t come from living simply. My Haitian metal artisan friends made me a sign that says, “Live Simply So That Others Can Simply Live” which is one reason we are on the verge of once again selling most our stuff to downsize our lives. But this time I know that having less or different stuff doesn’t eliminate the struggle. The stuff only masks it and makes the root of the issue harder to identify.
We live in a world that tries to blame our struggle on stuff and mostly on each other based on different perspectives. Lord knows those are all over the news these days. I hope you still have friends on both sides of the current political crazy. I’m thankful to have kept mine thus far whether or not I agree with their perspectives. It helps me to remember that we share the same struggle. We will never be content with how the world is running unless we find our contentment in Who is truly running the world.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
This is why the journalist living among Muslims for many years can say, “In every country our struggles are the same.” We are all the same kind of different with a common struggle. The struggle is not against one another. It is against the great deceiver, Satan, who is still determined to hinder our contentment just like he did with Eve. Sadly, he’s still doing a great job. We are always wanting something more while forgetting the more we were created for. This life is not supposed to fulfill us. We all find ourselves hoping and striving for a better life, a better world. “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control , will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21).
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:22-25).
The only solution to our struggle is Jesus. Because he has struggled with all that is common to man and won. We are still in the struggle. Daily. Those of us who know Jesus take courage knowing that day is coming to an end as we try to remember he has already overcome the world (John 16:33). But so many of our fellow strugglers do not know Him yet. If they are the same kind of different as you and me, when they look at our lives what will they see? Are we content in every circumstance? Will they see that our peace and joy is Jesus?
May we be able to say, “I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us then, who are mature should take such a perspective of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (Philippians3: 10-16).
Blaise Pascal once pondered, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?
This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” (Pascal, Pensees #425)
What’s your perspective?