The heaviness of the tropical air settled on us as we waited for our baggage, two pieces of which had been lost. It was an instant reminder that life marches to a different beat in the developing world than in our Organized States of America. After a seeming eternity, we pushed our overloaded baggage cart through customs to finally embrace my husband’s parents who were convinced we’d missed the plane. As we left the airport, our arrival into another world descended on us quickly.
Driving in Sri Lanka looked more like a chicken fight gone bad than cars following rules of the road (what are those, anyway?). Piles of trash covered random street corners, their putrid odor overwhelming passersby. I breathed it all in deeply – finally, a vacation!
For me, the word vacation usually conjures up images of resorts, beaches, and relaxation rather than of bad driving, inconvenience and trash heaps. Yet as we’ve spent our days in Sri Lanka over the years, I’ve experienced a vacation of a different sort, for I did not occupy myself with the same kinds of expectations I carry with me in the U.S.
In the US, when I sit in an uncomfortable chair, I curse under my breath at the negligence of whoever must be at fault. In Sri Lanka, I was grateful to get a chair under the fan, comfortable or not. Here, I concern myself greatly with the tastiest brand of apple sauce or ice cream. In Sri Lanka, I’ve recognized that eating these foods at all is a luxury. Here, I rush to the hardware store to buy ant poison upon the discovery of a few ants roaming my living room floor. In Sri Lanka, the ants roam so freely and abundantly that on occasion, I’ve stopped on occasion to study their resourcefulness, order and determination.
In America, vacations nourish my self, surrounding me with opportunities to be served and relax. In Sri Lanka, the vacation was from myself, from my daily list of expected rights and materialistic consumption.
In Sri Lanka, I do not have the luxury of ignoring the reality of the harshness in our world, for it has all been in my face at once: poverty, injustice, beggars shadowed by a history of war, tales of child soldiers, land mines, suicide bombers. I do not step outside the gate without a breath of prayer for the safety of myself and my family, or pass a beggar-in-front-of-a-mansion without seething at the inequitable distribution of wealth around the world. I do not read the paper without shaking my head at the greed, selfishness of the-hands-that-hold-the-power. I do not walk into the homes of my family with out breathing deep their resilience, faithfulness and fortitude amidst all of these realities.
Even in light of such immediate chaos, I still find myself easily consumed by my own humanness. Daily life settles in, and a battle between the global and the personal ensues.
My children wake up from jet leg four times in one night = despair … but at least they have a bed to sleep in.
The heat is so exhausting I can barely keep my eyes open = whiny attitude necessitating an afternoon nap … but at least I have a place and time to take a nap and a fan to sleep under.
A taxi driver cheats me because I am a foreigner = indignance! … but at least I have enough money to even be a foreigner, let alone get cheated.
My in-laws don’t get to see my sweet kids actually be sweet due to their 10 hour jet lag = pouting … but at least they get to see them at all.
Clothes are sooo cheap here. I want to buy as much as I can! = greed … but the break from the obsession of American materialism is so refreshing.
“The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, and God,” writes Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk. “The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs overeasy.”
When I taught at a wealthy Christian university, I would dialog with students about what my husband calls “living in light of global reality”. We would discuss such complexities as the inequitable distribution of wealth, the lack of proper health care, the travesties of ethnic conflict and corrupt governments and what that meant for our personal and professional lives. Occasionally, I’d run into an unusually naive student (usually a freshman) shocked at the prospect of poverty, but overall, the students were more trying to grasp a reality they had never known themselves. Their background of privilege and sheltered lives made it difficult to understand another world, and even more challenging to determine how to make daily decisions in light of this reality.
It meant a lot of paradox for all of us. Great compassion for children with AIDS or sex-slaves or racial inequities vs. buying new shoes to keep up with the trends. Seeking a deeper understanding of the world vs. obsessively following the coolest music scene.
As I grow older, the questions only magnify. Public schools or private? Suburbs or city? Safe or risky? Internally, I see that there are things far more important than my trendy new shoes or funky hair-cut. However, I continually grapple with the concept that ‘just because I can, doesn’t mean I should’ acquire, accumulate, and keep-up-with-the-Jones. As much as my mind throws its weight around by trying to be aware, my will acts far more often as its sidekick, settling for eggs over easy and a cute pair of shoes.
After years of ‘vacations’ in a war-torn tropical paradise, I’m slowly understanding this word paradox. It surfaces not only in the breath-taking beauty and heart-wrenching injustices of Sri Lanka, but also in my truth-seeking mind and self-seeking will. Living in the developed world, I face a constant tension to live in light of global reality because the pressure to keep up with the neighbors usually outshouts the hungry stomachs and unseen injustices in my direct line of sight. (Even my dear mother-in-law comments when she visits how tempting it would be to buy things when they’re packaged so nicely). In light of this tension, I count it a great gift of intercultural marriage to have reason for this reality to be part of my own family.
For Western believers, living in light of global reality means we need to spend far more time facing our role in better responding to these paradoxes, not shying away because we don’t understand. We begin this process by seeking to live humbly with each other, by listening for voices big and small, and by examining where our treasures truly lie. A daunting task to be sure, but one that our Father clearly calls us to. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” the Story tells us. May we care for more than just our little corner well.