Culture & Race, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Rethinking how we speak about American blessings

“We’re so blessed to live in this country.”

I cringe a little when I hear a statement along these lines, wondering about the sentiments that lie beneath the actual words.  I usually hear people respond this way in response to conversations about difficult realities like poverty or hunger or lack of sanitation or war.

Statements like this unsettle me for a variety of reasons.  When people say, “We’re blessed to live in the US,” sometimes I hear an assumption of superiority behind their words that portrays an attitude of we’re-so-much-better-than-those-poor-folks-in-the-poor-world.  It makes me wonder if focusing on our assumed ‘blessings’ of comfort, prosperity and sanitation allows us to numb out the feelings of horror, responsibility, and generosity we might feel if we actually let those realities of global poverty sink in.

Another reason these words unsettle me is because they passively imply that those in other countries aren’t equally blessed to live where they live. There’s a sense that we live in the promised land, and those poor folks – well, sucks to be them, eh?  On one level, I follow the idea that a developed and civil society is a more comfortable environment to live in.  Cleanliness, prosperity, order, and efficiency are good ideals that benefit society as a whole.  However, they certainly aren’t the only qualities by which the value of a place should be judged.

While I know a lot of people who’ve sacrificed immensely to move to the US, I also know quite a few who would never want to live here.  They don’t hate it, it’s just not home.  They feel blessed to live in their homes, with their food and their loved ones and their dirty streets and inefficient systems. They’re also horrified by our violence, materialism, sexual ethics, and isolation from each other.

A friend of my husband’s from Sri Lanka who’d lived in Singapore for several years recently told him, “Everything there is soooo clean and efficient and productive, sometimes you just need to get out to get a break or you go crazy.”  I chuckled when I heard this, for at the time, I was in Sri Lanka missing those very qualities about my American home.  Sometimes, it’s all about what you’re used to.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my homeland.  It’s taken nearly three decades, but I can even say that I love living here (California has helped this process quite a lot).  Driving across the country a few years ago gave me a whole new appreciation for its vastness, diversity, and beauty.  I love that the freedom here allows for a global mosaic like Los Angeles.  I love the sense of community the lingers in my heart from my small Midwestern home town.  I love the hustle and bustle of New York City, and the never-ending quietness of Kansas.  It really is a unique, diverse, and beautiful country.  

But there are a lot of such places around the world that people call home.  From the outside, we might perceive some of these places as destitute or hopeless, but this is not their only story.  I spent a summer once in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world at that time.  The capital city, Ouagadougou, had two paved roads.  Disease and hunger were rampant.  At first glance, the people were destitute.  But then I looked again.

I saw old women with their heads wrapped in vibrant scarves dancing down the church aisles to give away the little money they had.

I saw bright eyes, curious to learn, fascinated by color, eager to smile at passersby.

I saw people sharing meals with each other, spending long hours together, warmed by each others’ presence.

I saw a generous hospitality that gave up beds, welcomed strangers, and cared for the sick and the poor.

I saw eager minds, grateful for the opportunity to learn and hopeful for the gift of an education.

There was so much good there that I would have never seen from a picture in a magazine of a bloated baby with flies in her eyes.  While their good didn’t look like my good, it was still very real.  They were blessed beyond measure, and I had so much to learn from them.  

When we hear about the hard-things-of-the-world, what would happen if we refocused our response away from our own comfort, safety and prosperity?

  • Issues of poverty seem so devastating, are there ways I could help alleviate it with the resources I have access to?
  • So many people go without, how could I simplify so I have more resources to share?
  • While it may look like a desperate situation, what is the strength of the people in it?  How can I learn from them rather than pity them?
  • If I live in comfort, are there people near me who don’t?  Do I see them?  How might they perceive the country I say I’m blessed to live in?

If we ask these questions first in our hearts, maybe our words would start to change too. Instead of responding that I’m so blessed to live in the US, maybe we’ll start saying, I love my home, and I have much to learn about how to see the blessings in the rest of the world.    And while we’re talking about it, maybe we’ll actually start doing it as well.

Let’s brainstorm new ways of speaking about where and how we live that honors the whole world, not just the US or the West. Have you found words/ways to do this?  I’d love to learn from how others speak about such things.  

Also, be sure to check out this post from Communicating Across BoundariesThe Problem with Blessing, to ponder the idea of blessing even further.  

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4 thoughts on “Rethinking how we speak about American blessings”

  1. Great post Jody and important. I did a post back in the fall called The Problem With Blessing that was on these similar lines and one of the things I noted was that those who use the words seem to have more of an Old Testament idea of ‘blessing’ as being something material as opposed to the Beatitudes that Jesus speaks of which are pretty opposite to that. I think about this so much and am so glad you brought up the conversation. Is my Pakistani friend living in a one room house less blessed than I, purely because I live in a larger house and have a bigger bank account? It strikes me as troubling to see blessing in this way. I love these words from your post: “While their good didn’t look like my good, it was still very real. They were blessed beyond measure, and I had so much to learn from them.” Thanks for this post.

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    1. Wow – what a great article!!! I’m adding a link to it at the end of this post – it really gives some teeth to the idea as well. It’s interesting to me to learn about the shift between OT and NT ideas of blessing. I always struggled when I hear people talk about being ‘blessed’ by escaping a tragedy like car accident, tornado, storm, etc. because my very next question is always, “But what about the people who didn’t escape? Are they any less blessed than you?”

      Of course I don’t say this, but I always want to.

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      1. Oh I so get this! We had an interesting conversation with a person who does not claim any formal belief or faith in God. When my husband was telling him the story of how we got to Egypt (which included someone being medivacced to Jacksonville, Florida and his wife being able to interview Cliff for the job) he stopped and said “Wait, so someone had to have a brain tumor so you could get to Egypt? That’s messed up.” It really made us stop and pause. We had only seen it from our perspective which was a perspective of provision and miracle.

        The reality is, it wasn’t our fault that he had the brain tumor and he actually ended up getting excellent care, much better than he would have been able to have, but his point cut deep in a good way. How am I describing my life, my ‘blessings’? How do they sound from the outside? How can I be truly thankful and grateful with a vocabulary that articulates the truth of God and doesn’t box in what his love looks like? If that even makes sense. Thanks for reading the post by the way! I appreciate that! Or should I say “I’m blessed that you read the post….” 🙂

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  2. I love what we have here, but I think sometimes all the “stuff” that we have so good in America causes us to become complacent. Faith is more casual, thankfulness is forgotten, community is ignored. I’m not saying this is everywhere or all the time, but I do think it causes us to lose something among the excess. When I was in Eastern Europe I was amazed by the hospitality-the welcoming and giving just because it was what was done. I have yet to see that same hospitality anywhere here. Not totally sure we get it right as a family, because we do talk alot about how our kids should be grateful for what they have when others are starving, but we also are trying to teach an appreciation of other cultures and an education in what other countries are like. This makes me think more about how to do that, and the wording that I use-thanks for making me think!

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