Short term missions: Gratitude is not enough…

                Summertime is the season of short term missions, which is causing me to reflect on the impact that short term trips often have on the participants and their response upon returning home, especially trips that take participants to areas where there is greater poverty than their home area.  Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with friends, colleagues, fellow church members, and many EMU students who have spent time internationally on a short term mission or study abroad trip.
      After spending time volunteering in an area where there is poverty, a common sentiment expressed goes something like:  “The people I met were so happy yet they had so little.  It made me realize I should really be more grateful for what I have.”
grateful

Based on the number of times I’ve heard this expressed, it is a very common response (and I’m sure I expressed the same sentiment after my first experience in another culture in 2002).  Upon further reflection, however, I’m troubled by this common response because I feel the response of gratitude is not wrong, but rather incomplete.  For those of us who were raised in an affluent community, spending time in a poorer community should cause us not only to be more grateful, but also to wrestle with two challenging questions:

1.        Why am I surprised to find that people are happy even when they have little?
2.       Why is this community poor, and how does my lifestyle and my community contribute to this inequality?
      I’m going to address the first question in my blog today, and then explore the second question in my next post.
In the US, we have been told over and over again that more things and more money will make us happy.  This sentiment is the entire basis of our multi billion dollar advertising industry and our capitalist economy.  Although many of us would claim that we don’t really believe this, our complete surprise that people can be so happy with so little is evidence that we have internalized this belief more than we realize.
So when we encounter people who appear to be content and joyful and yet don’t have much materially, it’s jarring for us.
By responding to this situation by committing to simply be more grateful for what we have, we perpetuate our false way of thinking:
Having a lot = happiness.
People with little = happy
 Me with more = more happy.
 Therefore, I should be even more happy because I have more.
The problem with this of course is that it doesn’t challenge the basic assumption that having a lot = happiness.
Short term trips should cause us to question that very foundation.  We should be asking, Why do I believe that more things should make me happier?  Are there things that this community has that my own community is lacking?
There are three things that I’ve noticed as I’ve spent time in other communities that I believe foster a sense of happiness and contentment that many of us in the West lack:
–          Limited exposure to advertising.  The purpose of advertising is to make us discontent.  If we were content with what we have, how we look, etc, we wouldn’t have the need to buy more things.  The general premise of advertising is to convince us that we are lacking in a specific way that their product can fix.  The promise is that true happiness will be found with the purchase of their product.  This promise is empty, and happiness continues to elude us as we try harder and harder to address our discontentment with stuff.
happiness

–          Strong community ties.  Many happiness studies have shown that strong relationships are one of the biggest determinants of happiness.  Many cultures, like Uganda, are people oriented, and place a very strong priority on relationships.   The average person in these communities has a strong network of family and friendship ties which also allows them to be resilient in the face of adversity.

community

–          Strong faith – with the rise of secularism in the West, the culture in general lacks an “overarching narrative” that gives meaning to life.  The secular view is that life began as a cosmic accident, there are no spiritual forces beyond what we can see and feel, and when we die we simply cease to exist.  This worldview can easily lead to a sense of hopeless and despair.  Communities that have a strong religious faith have an overarching narrative that enables them to look at the whole of life as having meaning.   In an oversimplified way, a Christian narrative states that we were created by a loving and benevolent God, our life is a meaningful invitation to participate with God in the way He is working and present in the world, and when we die we have the hope and promise of eternal life.  Embracing this narrative results in a sense of hope and joy, as well as resilience in even difficult circumstances.

faith
The typical response of determining to be more grateful is therefore incomplete because it enables us to continue with our false way of thinking, simply determined to “try harder” to appreciate the material abundance in our lives.  Instead, we should examine our own lives by asking questions such as:
–          How much and what kind of media do I expose myself to?  How does this affect the way I see myself?  How does this affect my ability to be content with where I am and what I have?
–          How much time do I invest in people?  Do I view relationships as expendable, simply a means to an end, or am I committed to the relationships in my life?  How can I rearrange my priorities to invest more in people and build stronger relationships?
–          Am I investing enough time in my spiritual life and spiritual development?  Am I being influenced by the meaninglessness of a secular worldview?  Do my life choices and actions reflect my faith and the ultimate meaning of my existence?

As a disclaimer, this discussion of people living in poverty and yet being happy can also cause us to idealize poverty, or to imagine that life in poverty is somehow ok because people appear to be happy.  True poverty is crippling and stressful, which leads us to the question I’ll reflect on next – short term experiences should lead us to ask hard questions about poverty and economic inequality….more on that next time…

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