Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unlearning Thankfulness

Tonight, I am shirking my responsibilities. Tonight, I am writing a blog post instead of planning that 90-minute C.S. Lewis lesson plan that I have to teach at the end of the week. I'm not reading the church fathers.

Yep. I'll regret this later. But for now, I have something to ponder.

Tonight I stumbled on "Are We Calling This a Win-Win?", a post from Jamie the Very Worst Missionary on the dangers of "poverty tourism". Jamie spent a number of years as a missionary in Costa Rica. In this post, she suggests - sarcastically, with humour - that short-term missions designed to make white American kids thankful are a waste of time.

I get her point. I agree. Last year, I taught a unit on diversity in my English Composition class. With this unit, my goal is to convince students that social privilege is a thing and that, as Christians, whether we are rich or poor, our responsibility is to love and support those who struggle in life. Unfortunately, a few students always walk away from this unit believing that the main lesson is simply that we need to be thankful for what we have and give some extra money to those who slept in the day that God passed out dollar bills. While no student has ever articulated this, the assumption is that we are somehow more blessed than those who are in poverty. I thank thee, God, that I am not like other men. 

I don't want to condemn generosity, of course. Yet if the only lesson that we take from hearing about the trials and suffering of other people is that our life is pretty comfortable and so we should give to those who are uncomfortable, we've missed the boat. Thankfulness and generosity that celebrates our social and financial status over the status of those around us is not particularly Christlike.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't ever learn about those who are in worse straits than us. Obviously, I teach a unit on diversity, which includes poverty. There is value here for American Christians, just not where we usually find it.

A humour website called "White Whine" (Caution: Strong language and some really insensitive people) catalogs status updates of privileged people who think the world is coming to an end for the silliest reasons. They're upset because the barista got their soy latte wrong, because their parents are making them drive the Audi instead of the BMW, because the weather is too cold to go boating, because they wanted the black iPad instead of the white iPad that their parents bought them. (No joke. I've seen these examples or similar ones on White Whine.) These people desperately need a reality check. The world will not come to an end because you have a black iPod.

Yet we too think our world is coming to an end, often for much more legitimate reasons: a lost job, n unexpected illness, breakup, a paycheck that doesn't stretch as far as it used to. For us, as for the White Whiners, there is value in learning about the sufferings of other people. That value doesn't have much to do with thankfulness. Okay, the White Whiners need to be thankful. Yet that's not what most of us need to learn.

For those who are going through real heartache, thankfulness doesn't cut it, at least not in the middle of the trial. Yes, losing a job in America is better than being continually hungry and seeing your children hungry in Africa. That doesn't make losing your job any less scary and frustrating. Yes, going through a breakup in America is better than contracting AIDS in Africa. That doesn't make the breakup hurt any less.

The value of learning about other people with other heartaches is twofold.

First, it keeps us from becoming myopic. Whatever our heartache is, it consumes a lot of emotional energy; we spend so much time and thought trying not to fall apart in the middle of a workday that we forget that other people too are going through their own private Hells. Then we learn about someone who lost their husband, someone who was diagnosed with an incurable disease, someone who had to say goodbye to a life dream. Perhaps we know this person in real life. Perhaps we only hear about them on the Internet. Either way, we are more alert to the suffering that is going on around us, and we are better able to respond to it. That we ourselves are suffering, even if only in some small way, makes us better comforters and better ministers than if we did not suffer at all. It is intolerable to have those with very little trouble pat you on the shoulder and say, "There, there. It will be all right" - because, of course, it may not be all right. It isn't all right now. Yet we who go through trials are the best comforters, and learning about other people's difficulties gives us an opportunity to comfort.

Second, and more personally, the value of learning about other people's heartache is learning that we are survivors. People have suffered since the world's beginning and somehow - inexplicably, unbelievably - survived. When a loved one dies, part of them dies too. When they lose an eye or a hand or a leg, part of who they are dies. When they lose a life dream, part of who they are dies. But life itself continues. Sometimes, the one who experienced pain will go on to better things, sometimes not. Either way, for those of us who are faced with greater troubles than owning a white iPad instead of a black one, it is good to know that there is life after the actual tragic event. My point here isn't really that we should be content with our troublesome life, simply because other people are content. As one of the comments on Jamie's blog post points out, many people who are in poverty aren't content, any more than the White Whiners are. Contentment is not the issue; that's a virtue that we cannot learn by visiting Africa. It is a virtue for which we need to look to God. Yet regardless of whether we are content in life, we can be comforted that there is in fact some kind of life waiting for us, something that does not involve the current trials and tribulations.

In the end, we need to stop assigning a virtue to our trials and difficulties; we need to stop pretending that we become more virtuous simply by looking on when other people struggle. Whatever our struggles, it is good to remember to reach out to those who are also struggling; it is good to remember that, no matter how dark the present, joy comes - miraculously - in the morning.

No comments:

Post a Comment