The single most important thing I gained in Africa was perspective. Perspective on life in general, on what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor. I mean I had a vague idea of how blessed I am but now I really know, with certainty. A few things became very clear while I was living in Zanzibar. As Christians, we are constantly warned against becoming attached to worldly riches because they tear us away from God. Now I know how true that is. Living simply for two months gave me a whole world of clarity. Not only was I not surrounded by possessions, but the schedule of my days was simple too. Boiled down, my days consisted of praying, eating and working. I didn’t have time to be lazy and didn’t have things like tv and the computer to take me away from God’s will. I was rich spiritually, while I was poor materially; like the people I was serving. Except for the fact that my poverty couldn’t hold a candle to theirs and I can only hope to gain half of the joy they possess.
Americans are stereotypically thought of as rich and while us middle class folk laugh at that idea, guess what? It’s true. You’re rich. You have things most people in the world couldn’t even imagine. Even the poor of this country are better off than the poor of Africa because they have access to social services and government help.
Yet I look around, at my friends and family and see that the majority of United States Citizens are not happy with their lives. We always want more; to be more successful, more beautiful, richer, smarter. Statistically we have high depression and suicide rates. I don’t understand why this is. We can’t blame money or success because these things are not inherently evil. The problem starts when we let the desire for more control us, consume us until we lose sight of what is really important. It comes down to one question: why are we so unhappy?
There is one clearly dividing factor between our culture and that of other countries, especially African and Hispanic nations: family. In African and Hispanic cultures, the family is the core unit of society. I think we have lost sight of the importance of family in the U.S. and that has made a world of difference. If someone has a strong family support system he or she is better equipped to handle crises and tragedies. Someone without that support seems more likely to cave under stress. I have been blessed with a big, loving family and I know for a fact that has made all the difference. We just spent a week together celebrating my Grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary and I was reminded once again how incredibly lucky I was to be born into the family that I was. So many people do not have that though. Mother Teresa said: “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” According to the World Health Organization, the Suicide rate for the U.S. in 2005 for males was 17.6 per 100,000. Honduras and Haiti had zero recorded suicides in 2003. I realize that poverty and happiness are complicated ideas, but family does seem to be a key factor in the equation. If we follow the logic of Mother Teresa, those who are rich and lonely are actually poorer than those who have nothing but a loving family.
My head is spinning from all of this and I am left with the question: who is really poor?