One of the hardest things about being an American living in a developing country is the constant tug between the world you left and the world you are currently living in. You can’t ever really shake either one. They are simultaneously slapped in front of your face and tucked inside of your heart at all times. Living in a developing country means that we are constantly faced with need. It’s at our gate, in our homes, along the roads we travel, called out to us from the streets we walk, forced upon us, in front of us at all times. As Americans, we have access to money (not unlimited access by any means, but nevertheless access). It’s no secret and it’s obnoxious when we try to pretend otherwise. It’s not always fair, but it’s the truth about where we come from. Most of us try to help needs. Many of us give until it hurts, but it’s never enough. We live in the “Middle”; in between two worlds which contrast themselves in a million different ways. To Americans, we are the missionaries who are always in need and the ones who gave up so much. To many people in our host country, we are the wealthy; the glowing answers to meeting their needs and who just need to give more.
This internal tug-of-war was very apparent within me this past Christmas morning. I sat watching my children open their Christmas gifts, with my grandmother’s coffee mug in hand. I use that mug every day because it helps me to feel closer to that spunky and vivacious grandma of mine, who lives thousands of miles away. We ran the AC all morning so that we could have some relief from our nasty enemy-guest, hot season, who makes her unwelcomed and overstayed visit every November through April/May. I felt so thankful for a home and for AC and for my grandma’s mug. As I looked at our beautiful, glistening tree and the many gifts under it, I thought about how much more we have than most of our neighbors. There it was. That familiar puncture to the heart. I thought about the children who go through our trash. I thought about the lady who had just knocked on our door begging for money. I thought about the many parents desperately looking for funds to pay their children’s school fees this time of year. I thought about those who heard their children’s cries the night before as they went to bed hungry. I felt guilt run over me as I watched my children’s joy. As much as I tried, I couldn’t completely enjoy the moment.
I hadn’t taken another sip from my coffee when both my mind and heart switched to my other side, my American-born and raised side. I looked at that same tree and it seemed so small, so embarrassing. It is actually kind of a pathetic tree. You know, one of those trees that people put on a table or in their children’s rooms. I scanned the gifts and thought about how sad our little display looked in comparison to people back in America. I wiped sweat off of my forehead (because one AC unit can only cover our hot season enemy-guest so much) and felt jealous about the sweaters and boots and the cozy blanketed family movie nights I had seen on social media, I thought about the hot chocolate and marshmallows while cozying up to the fireplace, those darn Starbucks selfies that people take with adorable outfits and silky shiny hair, the fun Santa visits to the mall and then I allowed myself to go there…I thought about the large family gatherings, with everyone assembled together laughing. Together…and probably perfectly not too cold and not too hot.
I thought about taking a picture and posting it. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to document our Christmas morning for either one of my two worlds to either pity or envy. The tortured thoughts and emotional tug-of-war that our two completely different worlds bring together are an even more unwelcomed guest than hot season. But nevertheless, like hot season, they come…and they come often and they are relentless.
Last week I threw out some old notebooks and broken toys. I typically give almost everything away, but these were in very rough condition *shame-induced caveat. We know that all trash here will be picked through by neighbors, workers, or anyone else who passes by. It’s something that you learn to live with. It’s also the reason why I wait years to travel back to America with luggage of old underwear, so I can throw them away there. I know, I know…you’re asking yourself “why don’t you just burn them?”. Great idea. We had that idea too. There Aaron was, burning some old underwear, (me watching from inside) when a couple of gracious guys saw the fire going and came to help. They can never un-see what they saw that day; our crispy burning panties. And I can never un-see them see what they saw. We all learned our lesson. Travel back with the old unmentionables. Throw them away at your parent’s house. You are welcome for all the weird thoughts and feelings that accompanied that last anecdote. Anyway, last week while purging, I accidentally threw away one of my daughter’s private notebooks. We then left for the afternoon and when we returned we saw a group of children filling their little dresses and pockets with items from our trash. We also saw some of them reading the notebooks. My heart broke as the little ones scattered in embarrassment, grabbing what they could while on the move. We got in the house and I saw the wounded eyes of one of my children as she too felt sad for them but also felt the familiar sting of violation when watching strangers laughing and reading her private writings.
In these moments, is my heart large enough to find pity on either end? Do I dismiss the pain of my daughter because “at least she’s not digging through trash”? How can I tend to her hurting heart without asking her to shove it away because “at least she doesn’t live like them”? How can I comfort her when I, myself, struggle comforting my own pain, which always feels so insignificant? How can we live among poverty, real and heartbreaking poverty, facing it every day, and still permit ourselves to acknowledge our own hurt?
How can I live in a world where I spend more money on cheese than some families do on their entire month’s food budget? Can I find joy and thank God when my children rejoice in the mozzarella on their pizza on Friday nights?
So, living here in the “middle”, I have learned to live with heaviness. All of us here in the “middle” learn to live a little bit heavy at all times, swallowing a million thoughts and emotions that enter our brains because it’s just too hard to process and articulate it all.
All of us who live in this “middle” are in a battle which is constantly fluctuating between abundance and need. You learn to cry with those in need and rejoice with those in abundance and find yourself living in both at times. You learn to live without giving yourself too much permission to process or compare where you are currently falling in between those two extremes.
Those of us in the middle carry a pervasive struggle in our hearts. You can’t really articulate it because it’s a kind of schizophrenic leap between guilt and jealousy, gratitude and shame, pitying others and pitying yourself, anger and sorrow, generosity and greed, a bleeding heart and a shocking coldness due to compassion fatigue. It is a fight and we get tired of living in it often. We want to enjoy moments and people and things, but it isn’t that simple anymore. Our highs and delights are tempered, and your pains and sorrows often feel unworthy.
Most people didn’t come to the mission field with a desire to make a better life for themselves. Many of us sold our homes, our vehicles, gave up good careers, solid future plans, access to great healthcare, and prepared our hearts to enter into a more difficult life. What we didn’t prepare for was leaving the States with our great sense of loss and sacrifice and then arriving in our host country as the wealthy. Even the donated computers we type our newsletters on set us apart from most. Our homes or vehicles or bicycles or our favorite-missionary-shoes-of-all-times- the Tivas or Birkenstocks, still feel strange and less than what we had back home; but they are rare luxuries here. Even those missionaries who live in the village inside of mud huts with no running water carry health insurance cards that could save their children’s lives, and most are one phone call away from being able to return to the States if there was great danger. It is not fair. We are always going be different. Though I’ve fought this mental battle for years, I don’t believe that the answer is living guilt-ridden, nor pretending we are poor (people see past that, sorry!), nor is it giving away every single thing we own.
That’s the funny thing about contentment, right? We don’t get to choose what we are called to be content with. We have to be content with what God has given. In Philippians, Paul talks about this kind of contentment. He says that he had to learn how to be content in every situation; how to be in need and how to have plenty, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Paul tells us that it is Christ who gives him the strength to do that. And it’s Christ who gives us strength, whether in need or in plenty, to live the same.
God sees our struggle living in the “middle” of plenty and little and He enters into our pain. He doesn’t categorize it or label certain needs or particular feelings as worthier of His time than others. He is a good Father and as good fathers do, rather than comparing His children or manipulating them to be more like “______”, he meets us where we are and cares for our hearts. He carries our burdens. He tells us to lay them at His feet. He cares for the hungry and oppressed and he comforts his children, even the rich. His love is not extended differently because of financial standing. God looks at the heart despite circumstances. If we are in need, He calls us to be content and trust Him for our daily bread. If we are in excess, we are called to be generous and trust Him with our money, not hoarding or gathering treasures for ourselves on earth, and to be, yes, content. There is always someone who will have less and always someone who will have more. Comparing will either build pride within us or place us into a pit of despair.
So, I don’t have this battle won, but I think the answer is learning to live well within the “middle” rather than fighting it. Those of us who live in the “middle” aren’t comfortable on either side anymore, but that is exactly where God has placed us. So, we continue to feel the discomfort, the pain, help the hurting, cry with and sacrifice for those in need, fight for contentment in our own need. When we are there on that side of our “middle ground”, in those moments, we need to be all there and not looking to the other side. Let’s not compare or justify or defend or run or allow guilt to overrun. Enter into pain and allow ourselves to hurt with those who are hurting, weep with those who are weeping and find contentment in loss and in need or in abundance.
Alternatively, when we are tempted to sink into sorrow at seeing yet another friend buy a home and build their American dream (while we are just trying to figure out how to stop our perpetual rat problems and live with cockroaches the size of our hand, spiders the size of our heads and snakes the size of our oldest children) acknowledge that pain as well. We can’t stay in it nor should we dwell on it but acknowledging that it is real gives us permission to identify the temptation and take it to our Father. For He cares. On this side of our “middle” we must find contentment in having less but loving those who have more.
Let’s have the courage to face either side of our strange “middle” and then faith to give it to our Father. I think we will find peace there. We will be at peace, because though we are wildly out of control and insanely tugged from both of our realties, our Father is in control and He is good. Like Job, who lived faithfully in both plenty and in painful loss, may our heart’s position here in the “middle” be “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” If we can rest in that then our souls will find peace and contentment in our shaky and fluctuating “middle” ground.