A few years ago I was in Ecuador visiting homes of people caught in what economists and social workers call “the downward cycle of poverty.” A nice little handle to put on such a sad scenario. Over half the world’s population living on less than $2 a day. Families “living” in what would certainly be considered sub-standard conditions. Sub-human is more like it.
One family of eight sharing two flea infested, soiled queen size mattresses in mosquito swarmed wetlands along the steamy Pacific coast. Employment is scarce, and opportunities are almost negligible in these cramped, wreaking barrios full of those who have moved from the countryside in hopes that the big city would deliver both. No running water. No sewer systems. Dangerous and unpredictable electrical service. Out of this hopelessness even deeper wounds become manifest: Gangs, the underworld, gambling, prostitution, drug dealing, alcoholism, various STD’s including a dramatic increase in AIDS. And everywhere, a veritable legion of mangy, rabid dogs at nearly every turn shaking and snarling through foamy teeth.
As a well-to-do American, it is a slap in the face. The most profound reality check that any of us could be confronted with. I have been around the stench of poverty in my work for over twenty years on four continents. I’ve seen more than my share of horrific conditions. I’m certainly familiar with it—but I can’t say I ever get used to it. I pray that I never do.
But more profound than the suffering and the overwhelming sense that this debilitating hopelessness continues onward and downward for these people every single day is this paradox: How grateful they are for the good they do have in their lives. How many lovely, sincere smiles did I see? How many peels of laughter did I hear? How many warm embraces, kind greetings, and humble compliments did I receive? I listened to heartfelt, honest, and truly thank-full prayers of mothers for God’s blessings in their lives. I saw children full of energy and dreams for what could be, despite what appeared to be smothering nightmares.
Flash forward a few days, and I am on my way home to Nashville. Upon reaching Atlanta at 7 PM for my final connection to Nashville, I discover there will be a two hour delay. I’ve been up since three that morning and am weary from the hectic week. I find myself muttering curses under my breath for the inept airlines, the weather system that passed through five hours before that caused all the delays, and the long lines for fast food. Then it dawns on me that less than a hundred years ago, it would’ve taken literally months to make the trip via boat all the way around Cape Horn (before the Panama Canal was built), as well as by steam train and wagon once on dry land. Of course, the people I had just spent the previous week with would’ve gladly “endured” my inconvenience for the chance to simply visit America, let alone return to a splendid, air conditioned house. They certainly would’ve happily stood in line for an hour just to have a fraction of what I ate on my chinese plate.
Once home, and nestled in my cool waterbed, I was awakened at 2 AM with that ominous feeling in my lower intestine. Having traveled over the decades, I immediately knew what is in store for several days ahead with “Montezuma’s Revenge.” This turns out to be a particularly bad batch, including vomiting as well as the traditional “runs.” I’m up every ten to fifteen minutes making a mad dash to the toilet. Sometimes I opt to just sit there for long stretches since it seems nearly pointless to go lie down again. Wave after wave of fluid flushes out of my system. This continues for seven hours. I ache. I’m bone tired. I finally nap a bit later on Saturday, but, to my dismay, the cycle begins again later that night, and I have a second sleepless evening in a row with dozens of commode performances. All told, I lose eight pounds in thirty-six hours. In the midst of my weary regret over what the hell I could’ve possibly ingested that caused this woe, I am reminded that at least a billion people on this planet live with chronic dysentery for their ENTIRE lives. This is “normal” for them. I can’t possibly imagine how anyone can function in this way.
Once recovered, I realize my lawn needs cutting. I fight through the thick Nashville air, sopped in sweat, battling sneezes and drooling due to allergies (how on earth can any more fluid possibly be coming out of this body?!), and swatting away aphids, gnats, flies, and wasps in the warm mid-day sun. As I’m putting my Murray mower back in its storage, I realize that the foundation, siding, and roof of this tool shed is better than what most of the families I visited a few days prior lived in. And the idea of having green grass, let alone a yard would’ve been completely surreal to them and their children.
While I am regaining some strength after my illness, I decide to go over to a friends house to watch a DVD. When we are done with our visit, as I start my car, there is a massive “bang” and smoke starts pouring out from under the hood followed by gritty screeches. My AC compressor died a violent death at that moment. I waited three hours for an AAA service truck. The mechanic jerry-rigged a way for me to continue driving for the remainder of the 4th of July weekend until I could get it into a shop. We forget the days before prevalent AC in cars, when we used the tried-and-true “4-50 air cooling system” (four windows down at fifty mph). With temps in the mid-nineties and typical mid-south humidity, any trip in my car for the next few days seemed to compress any further potential stomach problems. It took $1,330 to fix the AC. That is twice what some of the families I had just met in South America earned for an entire year. And none of them had ever even sat in an air conditioned car before, let alone had that luxury in their home. Heck, I didn’t meet one person who even owned a car, and most were lucky to scrape together rent to “live” in the shacks they were in.
It is amazing how God can show us things so clearly in one moment, and then literally a few days later, we can be blinded by our own day-to-day rituals and sense of entitlement. At my core, I, like most human beings, am a very selfish lout. I take so much for granted. I am impatient. I am too quick to blame. I complain and whine too much (if not verbally, then certainly in my spirit). Bottom line, I am ungrateful.
May I continue to be reminded, taught, and even disciplined into realizing how very blessed I am. And in return, may I be all the more gracious, giving, kind, and understanding of those who are not as fortunate as me.