Saturday, November 26, 2011

Recognizing what we have — before it's gone

These Guatemalan boys, despite their lack of material
wealth, are happy. I have a lot to learn from them.
I deplore Black Friday. How absurdly ironic is it that we would follow a day supposedly dedicated to thankfulness with a day dedicated to excessive, impulsive consumption? (Yes, it's worth noting that Americans traditionally give said "thanks" by gorging themselves with obscene amounts of food. Guilty on that count, you ask? Better believe I am!)

Black Friday encourages people to spend money they don't have on things they don't need. It facilitates corporate greed and poor treatment of employees. It promotes uncivil, primitive, or even violent behavior — all in the name of getting a "good deal." It reinforces the notion of a society addicted to consumerism — where we're never happy with what we have, and always need to get our hands on the next greatest thing.

I've never liked the song "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell. (Equally shitty remakes were done by Amy Grant and Counting Crows.)

But there is one profound line in the song: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone…"

These words largely describe the long-standing perspective I've held regarding my own circumstances: I ignore the long list of incredible blessings in my life, and emphasize the minor hardships, even though the former outweighs the latter many times over.

Why is it so hard to be content with what we have? Why do we always want more? And why are we so unwilling (or unable?) to recognize the beauty and provision of the present? Why do we view these things with a sense of entitlement, as opposed to a spirit of humble gratitude?

These questions have become more pronounced for me in recent months.

This past August, I traveled with a group of people to Guatemala on a work trip (more detail about this in a future post). Overall, the trip was a beautiful, eye-opening experience that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

But one thing I noticed about our time there was how quick the group was to complain about trivial inconveniences. Only one of the three places where we stayed had hot water in the showers, and, of course, in no place was the tap water (or even most foods) safe to consume. Naturally, this became a topic of repeated conversation. Perhaps it was not so much because we were frustrated with having to endure without such luxuries for a week, as it was because we were so used to having them all the time.

Actually, all the kids there were happy. Why aren't we?
One day, while visiting my organization's development programs in rural Guatemala, we observed a young girl at one of the sites, probably about age 10, who was washing her hair in a large basin of filthy water. Instantly, I felt regret for earlier remarks I had made about having to take cold showers with my mouth closed, or brush my teeth with bottled water.

On the last day of the trip, at the airport in Guatemala City, I ordered a sandwich after verifying on the menu that it contained no washed lettuce or tomatoes. After about two large bites into the sandwich, I realized that the menu had been mistaken. It was too late. I felt disgusting for several days after arriving back in Seattle. And I remembered that physical health is an invaluable blessing that nonetheless is extremely easy to take for granted — until you no longer have it.

But this is how we so often respond in a society where anything we need — or want — is readily and quickly accessible. Life's basic provisions and blessings become a standard guarantee in our minds — things we're entitled to rather than gifted with. We begin to view whatever we have as inadequate. Black Friday painfully illustrates this each year. People create riot-like conditions over $2 waffle-makers. That's sad.

What do you take for granted? What do you view with a sense of entitlement? And what would it be like if those things suddenly weren't around anymore?

Electricity? Indoor plumbing? Financial security? Your spouse? Your friends? All of those things?

In this season of giving thanks, maybe we should start to pay more attention to Joni Mitchell's words (even if the song sucks).

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