People starve to death. It’s a thought which haunts me, although I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it’s not for the reasons you might think. It’s a reality that haunts me every time someone tells me that things have to turn around soon. Or when I want to comfort myself with the idea that eventually spring comes, the sun returns and nothing lasts forever. “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” People starve to death. Tell a man or woman who watched their child starve to death that spring comes again each year. And that’s what haunts me – if people starve to death, then there’s no reason to think my in-comparison small problems will ever right themselves.
Yesterday my husband told me about a story he had read about a horrific attack on a little boy in Bangladesh. The boy was terribly maimed and the family had to go into hiding at a military installation due to ongoing threats from the local gang leaders responsible for the attack. My husband said one of the most striking things about the story for him came from the boy’s devastated father. Bangladesh is a poor country and the family lived in a one room tin shack in a slum. And the father told reporters that his family had been happy. They had been happy together and in their little community even though they sometimes didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Today, money is pouring in from around the world to help the child and his family – there next many meals are guaranteed. But the father told reporters that his family had taken everything from them. And my husband said, “I read that and thought, I want to be like that guy. I want to be able to live in the middle of squalor and with nothing and be happy.” Is that a trade you would make – to live in squalor and extreme insecurity in exchange for happiness? Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I certainly don’t want to romanticize extreme poverty. But why do I – and most all of us – struggle and suffer so intensely while living in homes with kitchens and running water and heat and bathrooms? How can a man whose kids sometimes missed meals say they were happy while I’m in a funk because I’m not sure we’ll be able to give our kids much more than pencils and socks for Christmas?
The temptation is to feel guilty for being unhappy in the midst of such abundance. To try to be more grateful. But I think there’s more to it than that. A while ago I read a comment from Desmond Tutu:
When I first came to this country in ’72, I was quite shaken by the intensity of feeling that African-Americans had. And I said I couldn’t understand: Why are they so bitter? Why are they so angry?
There, in South Africa [under apartheid], they told you, “You’re nothing, and we’re going to treat you like the nothing you are. And don’t ever hope to think that you have a chance of being treated differently.”
Here, you say to them, “You’re equal, and the sky’s the limit.” And they keep bumping their heads against this thing that’s stopping them from reaching out to the stars.
I think that this dynamic accounts for a great deal of suffering among many of us living in affluent parts of the world. We believe that it’s possible for us to have more, do better, be more secure than we are. In fact, it often seems like we’re obliged to do more and have more. We’re fed a steady diet of chatter which says that if you work hard, do the right things, keep your nose clean, life will go well. We live in the land of opportunity. So when things aren’t going well, we tend to want to double down – work harder, do better, find our way out. But when you are convinced that safety, comfort and security are just waiting for you to get it all together, the straight and narrow becomes an anxiety inducing tightrope walk 100 feet up without a net.
My husband and I have been trying to walk that tightrope for a long time now. We’ve been trying to buy into the fiction that all it takes to overcome youthful errors, repeated job losses and multiple failures is to keep going, work harder, be smarter. Fall down 6 times, get up 7. But there’s that little fact which keeps stalking me: people starve to death. If hard work, smarts and determination guaranteed success, people wouldn’t starve to death. That man in Bangladesh knew that people starve to death. He knew he was never going to have anything. And perhaps, having made peace with that reality he was able to do what we, with all our advantages are only rarely able to do: be happy regardless of circumstances.
That’s the real challenge for me (and I suspect you as well). Can I be happy if life never gets better or if it gets worse? The other night while driving my husband home from the bus station, I was praying and wrestling with all of this. God told me, “you have enough.” I know from past experiences and conversations/prayers that by “enough” God means “enough for this instant in time.” If I have a full belly or a meal waiting for me, I have enough. If I have anything – a cave, a house, a coat – to shelter me from the weather, I have enough. If I can get a drink from a faucet or bottle or stream or melted snow, I have enough. (God’s standards about these things are much lower than my own.)
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?
But I don’t know how to make this mindset my own. “I’d just like a little comfort. Some security,” I said. That’s reasonable, isn’t it? Only security is an illusion. I know that too.
“The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
How many people have lost all that they have saved to war, theft, hyper-inflation, political strife? Or even to shady mortgage brokers, medical bills and lost jobs? Helen Keller once said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” 401ks, diplomas, mutual funds and a strong work ethic don’t change that.
Finally, I told God, “so I have enough for the moment. And for this day. But what about tomorrow or the day after? How can I live without knowing that there will always be enough?”
“You will always have me. Aren’t I enough for you?”
That’s what I want, really. To be so rooted in God that he will always be enough for me. No matter what the circumstances. Perhaps God will graciously draw me that close in time. But at the moment, I can’t help but wonder if he’s enough for people who starve to death.