Bush has seen poverty. So has Brant. Sophie, Shannon, Anne, Melanie, Mary, David, and Brian too. And they can’t stop talking about it. Because the sights and sounds and smells of it are stuck to our insides like the parasites we brought back with us. But there’s no Cipro to flush the experience of poverty out of us.
Seeing poverty up close is very uncomfortable because it does two things to me every time: It makes me feel things I and my culture try hard to avoid feeling: sadness, guilt, anger, despair, small. And it also makes me need to change. It leaves me wondering about my finances, my priorities, my church, kids, career, theology, politics, neighborhood, diet, time. I always get the nagging feeling, legitimate or not, that perhaps my life needs a little tweaking.
The way I see it we have only four choices when we eturn home to our middle-class (or better) lives with the third world still stuck in our gut.
We can tell ourselves life hasn’t changed. We can tell ourselves we made it home unaffected. We can tell ourselves – and for some broken people this is actually true – that we feel nothing and no response is necessary. There are entire theologies that evolve from this belief that the life of others does not need to bleed over into our own – it’s individualism gone wild. But I believe Martin Luther King, Jr was right when he said injustice anywhere undermines justice everywhere. What I experienced of it “there” is forever part of me “here,” whether I can acknowledge it, feel it, think about it, and deal with it or not. Oddly, folks who choose to ignore what they’ve experienced in the third world, in my experience, think they’re being tough. Ironically, it’s their weakness, their inability to deal with what just happened to them that’s in play.
You know people like this I’m sure. In a Christian subculture that demands a sermon start with a good joke, that peddles “Your Best Life Now” and shuns topics that aren’t upbeat and positive more often than not, we’re not a people practiced at going deep for very long. Make us walk through poverty for five days and we’re grabbing every joke, movie, sale, buffet we can find to get us back to the surface as quickly as possible. And we’re apologizing profusely for having ever inconvenienced others by talking about those poor kids like we did. My last day in the Dominican Republic, for example, I was tired of being submerged and serious so I posted a stupid cartoon. It wasn’t even funny but I had to try to get some air. I had to.
A few years ago, after traveling to El Salvador, I came home angry and sad and I stayed that way for months. I didn’t want to feel better. I wanted to punish myself for living such a sheltered life before my trip. I wanted to pay off some debt I felt I had to all those children going to bed hungry, all those people I never cared about or knew about before. I felt guilty for even the smallest amounts of pleasure. Laughing at a joke left me feeling insensitive. Making one was even worse. I felt like I was having fun at a funeral, like I had no business enjoying my life while others were losing theirs. I became repellant and when I spoke about the problems in the third world and asked other people to care too, to do something about it, I was not compelling. If caring meant becoming like me, why would anyone want to do that?
Ignoring keeps us and those in the third world from being made better by our experience. Floating keeps our hardest experiences from growing roots and producing fruit in us for a long time to come. Dwelling makes for some great angsty music and cerebral blog posts but leaves us immobilized. Somehow we need to integrate our experiences in the developing world into our world at home.
I’m slowly getting the hang of this. Five trips to the developing world, and I no longer get angry at my children when they don’t like the gift I brought home or say they’re “starving.” And I actually bought some new shoes the day after I returned this time – with
no only a little guilt. Baby steps, right?
I want to be a person who can fearlessly experience poverty and pain, who can be affected by it and still be effective in changing it, see death and live a better and wiser life because of it, see needs and still be grateful for having mine met. I don’t want deny the power of what I experience. I don’t want to stay on the surface away from the dark depths of this world. I don’t want to go all emo, get myself a black wardrobe and never smile again. I want to integrate what I’ve seen into my life forever and be better for it.