Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I Don't Live in Africa

Here's the thing, I don't live in Africa. For those of you who know me that probably comes as no surprise. So, why am I telling you something you already know? I saw a quote once, probably on Humans of New York, but I'm not exactly sure where, that said something about how in the place this person came from everyone was content and happy even though they didn't have very much. The comment was that in America everyone has so much but no one is satisfied with how much they have or happy. Or something like that. 

In my own mind, when I'm struggling with the reality of my life, I'll point out to myself that compared to so many people around the world I have So Much! We have a house, a car, electricity, running water, access to medical care, and the option of sending our kids to school. (We don't utilize that option, but it's there.) There are nifty websites like This One that will tell me that my family is in the top 20% of all the people in the world, when it comes to income. How dare I feel a sense of lack or consider myself poor??!!??

But I don't live in Africa or South America or anywhere else for that matter. I live right here, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States of America. My friends don't live in the little shack, hut, or apartment packed full of multiple generations next door. In fact, most of my friends don't live near me at all. Most of my friends make, or have spouses who make, tens of thousands of dollars more each year than my family does. Most of my friends have had some hard times, but they haven't struggled for decades only to still be struggling. 

My family lives a strange mixture of poverty and excess. My children have each been to Disney World, twice! But, they have each only had their hair professionally cut once in their life, and for two of them it was at a super inexpensive Super Cuts kind of place when they were very little. Ironically, the trips to Disney World and the once in a life time hair cuts happened only because they were paid for by someone else. We get to do cool things when other people help make them possible, and we are incredibly appreciative that people do make special trips and opportunities possible for our family. However, those bits of extravagance are the contrast to our daily life where just buying the essentials, like underwear and toothpaste can cause financial stress. When people look at our life and say, "Yes, but you've gotten to do this or have that! You shouldn't complain about being poor," I want to point out that while the extras are awesome, they don't take away the daily stress of trying to survive. 

If I lived where everyone else was hauling water from the one well in the area back to our tiny dwellings, I'd be right there with everyone else, hauling water. But I don't live there, I live here. And here we aren't all living at the same basic level. Here life is set up by and for people who have a steady income that provides enough money for the essentials and some extras. And while a huge number of American's don't have that, just like me, the media focuses on those who do. The politicians are people who do. The people I'm friends with on facebook and in real life are those who do. 

Having thought about all of this, a lot, I've found that two things stand out. First, I can't compare my life to people in Africa, because I live here. The amount of money I have in U.S. dollars would buy a whole lot in Africa, but that's irrelevant. The way I live, even with a leaky moss covered roof and feeling financial stress over buying toilet paper, may be luxurious compared to the lives of many people, but I don't have a close relationship with those people. I am not a bad person for feeling like my life is difficult and discouraging. It is! My feels are valid and should be validated. I remind myself that there are no wrong feelings. 

But that brings me to the second thing I've realized: while it's impossible not to compare my life to the lives of my friends and the people I'm close to, I do want to keep in mind that if everyone I knew lived at the same level I did I would feel more content. That doesn't mean I'm going to banish all my friends from my life and only associate with people who live in poverty. It means that sometimes it's helpful to reflect on what I would be satisfied with, where my level of contentment would be, if I didn't have friends whose income provide them with greater opportunities, comfort, and security. 

There are dark days when I have a hard time seeing the little pockets of contentment that are possible in my life. When those days strike I'm extra glad that I have to go outside and let the ducks out in the morning. Ducks are awesome examples of contentment. They get excited about a mud puddle, a small pool of water, or a handful of peas. Then again, that may be because they don't know about ducks who live with wide open fields and real ponds to swim in....