Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thoughts Without Borders

I wasn’t sure what to write about today; there have been different themes running through my brain lately.  I thought this might become a Friday Fragment, but my first fragment has grown to full-post size.  See for yourself…warning: serious thoughts ahead!

Always in search of another book to devour read, I settled this week on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  This will be the second time through for me.  I don’t think I got much out of it the first time, as I don’t seem to remember any of the last third of the book!  It’s about the family of a white Southern Baptist preacher who go to the Congo on a mission in 1959.  Not to spoil the book for you, but…things don’t go well.   Still, even after the mission falls apart, the remainder of the family spends the next three decades processing what happened and how it changed them (or didn’t).  The book highlights the themes of the western (white) world imposing its ways on a “primitive” culture and geography, without examining them first to understand how the system already works.

This is not a book review; just an introduction to my own thoughts.  I don’t know why, but I’ve always been aware of those who have less—much less—than we do.  When I moved into my first apartment alone in my twenties, I was a bit embarrassed by the overwhelming number of material possessions I had to move with me.  Clothes, bathroom supplies, kitchen gadgets and gewgaws, curtains, framed pictures, stereo and cds, computer and furniture…  And I kept thinking about truly poor people in Central America or Africa, who have nothing but a tin cup and the clothes on their backs.  How can I possibly need so much when they survive with so little?

My mind cannot wrap itself around the wide separation in our fortunes, those of us who fret over matching napkins and those who pray for enough extra harvest to sell for meat.  Those of us who scour the shops for the perfect shoes to match a bridesmaid’s dress, or argue over whether probiotic yogurt is really effective, versus those who cross a river hoping the crocodiles are downstream, or watch their children wither with dysentery.  How can I seriously be expected to care whether my pants are properly ironed when I know across the globe others are going hungry?

But honestly…what can I do?  What am I supposed to do?  I’ve never mentioned here that I do sponsor a girl in Sénégal—Fatou.  I’m not a great sponsor; my letters to her have been ridiculously spotty.  Still, because of my paltry but regular $24 a month, I know one girl has stayed in school rather than go to work to supplement her mother’s $800 annual income.  One girl has learned enough math to keep a budget and enough French to speak her mind.  One girl has gotten information about basic hygiene which will hopefully protect her from malaria, dysentery, AIDS…  One girl out of millions.

I could do more, though.  Besides writing Fatou more often, I could send her more money.  Or sponsor another Fatou, or maybe a Maria in El Salvador, and a Chan in Cambodia.  Why is it ok for me to not sell all my worldly possessions and join Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross; to dig wells or teach French and English to a classroom of Fatous? 

Because we can’t all do it, I guess.  Because there’s no point in going if you’re not called to it, otherwise you become a bigger liability than a help.  I know myself well enough to imagine I’d be pretty dang distracted by missing air conditioning and my big king-sized bed at home.  Teaching is hard enough for me with AC and all the comforts of home.  So much for the shirt off my back.

That’s what gets me: as a Christian, I am supposed to give up everything, all my worldly attachments, to serve God.  But does God really want me to wander naked and possession-less in the wilderness?  No, I don’t think that’s the point; I can’t serve if I can’t survive.  So where’s the dividing line; at what point is it ok to stop giving away and keep some to live on?  In the States, “enough to survive on” has a very different meaning than in the Congo.  We have to keep up appearances here: to keep our jobs, to keep a roof over our heads and to have enough extra to sponsor a child in Africa.

This post is full of questions, but not so many answers.  I suppose what’s most frustrating is knowing that this is the way it’s always been…and for the foreseeable future, this is the way it will always be.  No matter how many sponsor children or run off to join nonprofits in the hinterlands, there will always be those who have more than they recognize, and those who have less than they need.  You and I, we were blessed to be born into parts of the globe that have a great variety and depth of resources.  I just wonder if somewhere, a thousand years in the future, the reverse may be true.

Deep thoughts for the end of a week, huh?  I’d love to hear yours!


  1. Flartus, I ponder the randomness. Why are we born into our different worlds? Why are some born into poverty and illness through no fault of their own, and why are some born into health and well being?

  2. Ok, Terry, and my next we the Fortunate bear any responsibility toward the Unfortunate?

  3. Yes. I love that you sponsor a child. My niece is a senior at Colorado State University. She started life in India as a 3 pound, 3 ounce "throw-away" baby.

  4. I loved this book when I read it a couple/few years ago. Having spent a fair amount of time in East Africa, here's my take on "what we can do."

    Don't take anything for granted, lose the sense of entitlement, work hard, play hard, enjoy life for what it is. I often think that those who are less fortunate are more fortunate... if you know what I mean. I think the people who know what to appreciate just might be more fortunate than those of us who don't.

  5. I have no answers, just the same questions you do. I think Morning Bray Farm is onto something there though. As well, I find that if I try to take care of my corner of the world, I feel better. We can't help what we were born into, but no matter where we live, all around us there are lonely elders, the ill and the sad who need comforting, kids who need a mentor - non-monetary needs right here at our doorsteps. Good questions & great writing.

  6. You've made me think on a day when I hurt (damaged my tailbone 2 months ago) and am thinking only of myself. I spent a lot of years as a volunteer - recording books, magazines and newspapers for the Georgia Radio Reading Service for the blind and print handicapped; led hikes for a blind and vision handicapped group of adventurers. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it and made great friends - and it was very rewarding. I'm currently financially and otherwise handicapped so I can't sponsor a child and don't feel up to volunteering. But that will change! Do I feel I owe it to anyone? Not really. But I do at least owe it to myself to be the best person I can, and that includes helping others whenever possible.

    Nancy in Iowa

  7. A friend and I sponsored a teenager in Rwanda this past year. It wasn't a hugely rewarding experience.

    A friend and I supplied a single mom with the funds to get her car repaired so she could get her kid to school and get to her job reliably. That was rewarding.

    As Christians, we aren't called to give up everything. SOME are called to do so. And some are called to a different path, a different mission. That's the beauty of diversity.

    Some hear the cry of the needy on the other side of the globe while some hear the cry from next door or down the street.

    My church supports a missionary in Guatemala. Several years ago, his young adult son was murdered there. He has remained in that country, continued to help those people. My church is sending a team down to work over the next few weeks. Not everyone was intended to go... just like not everyone is intended to work with kids or sing with music team.

    Not everyone can learn or teach French, not everyone can garden, not everyone can cook.

    That's why one person can't save the world... but you can make ripples as you touch individual lives.


Thanks for dropping by--please share your thoughts!

"Every time we get comment mail, Rosie wags her tail!" (Seriously, you should see that puffy thing go.)