If you’re anything like me, it may have been hard for you to experience joy of late. I listen to the news and follow several global advocates on social media. It is also nearly impossible to avoid the politics that have taken over these days, and the reminders, especially during this preparation for Christmas, of how many “things” we supposedly need, and how so much of society’s value is placed on external appearances. I mean, really?! Who can actually afford to buy their spouse a brand new Lexus for Christmas?
Western society, in my experience, does not promote joy. It promotes instant gratification, a particular body type, material possessions to signify that you are accepted as gainful members of this society, and an “us vs. them” mentality. If one is not as economically well-off, they must have done something to deserve their circumstances. Happiness is based on wealth, society preaches. And yet, if you follow the world of entertainment, sports, and the reality television’s lives of the uber-rich, how often does it strike you that any one of those whom we worship is actually contented? Joyful?
My career path has evolved in a way that has allowed me a great amount of interaction and service of the poor. My initial stance was one of fear, as so much of my taught experience was that they were different, had made bad choices, had put themselves into their circumstances, and were possibly dangerous.
My fears were unfounded. One of the first lessons I learned was that these folks were so burdened by constant rejection, prejudice, and stereotyping that they lived in a constant state of defense. Once they were seen as individuals, once their story was heard, once they were engaged by another, almost always there was a shift in their being. Relief set in, tears were shed, and smiles started to appear on their faces. These were people who had very little—often no heat or electricity, perhaps one or two sets of clothes, a semi-working car if they had one at all, and who lived off a small amount of social security income. Our food bank was inundated with requests toward the end of the month as the money ran out. Patients had complex health problems which were both catalysts for more uncertain circumstances, and which were also a product of the limited choices they had. One month rent was paid, the next month food was bought or utilities paid.
We who have plenty and can live in comfort might become irritated by being unable to wear a favorite shirt or dress because it is dirty, while these beautiful women and men were ecstatic to wash their clothing even once per month and wore winter jackets that were years old.
Yes, some of them held bitterness toward God and toward others. But overwhelmingly, what I saw in these brothers and sisters of ours was great faith. Clients broke into prayer or song in the lobby and nearly always accepted prayer when it was offered. There is nothing like the joy present on the face of someone who has had a full set of dentures fitted to replace the pain and embarrassment of dental abscesses and rotten teeth.
The genuine faith and joy present in those who had so few material goods seemed to emanate from a pure dependence on God and His goodness, which drove them forward through each day. They did not fall for the constant need to have more and more possessions. The few they had were precious to them. They cherished their family and the small blessings they received.
After several years of working domestically, I had the opportunity to travel internationally and partner with organizations on the ground in Nicaragua. The first few years I spent wrapping my mind around the sheer and massive disparity between what was considered “poor” by our standards in the USA, and what poverty looks like in the developing world. The tiny gestures we thought were helpful, such as one month’s worth of vitamins or an anti-parasitic tablet that was effective for perhaps a few months, or a toy for child, were nothing compared to the endemic of starvation and despair obvious from the streets or in the clinic. Illnesses which in the States would be cured by a visit to a pediatrician were deadly because they had gone untreated for months or years. We came in for two weeks at a time and served in a small capacity running a medical clinic. People traveled on foot for days just to be seen by a doctor. May of the children that were brought to us were actually comparatively healthy, but parents still needed the reassurance that they were doing well.
Cultural nuances provided some obstacles to treatment, especially as some clients came in with long-held beliefs about Western medicine. But every day when we opened and closed the clinic, the patients demonstrated more reverence and spiritual devotion than I had ever seen in my church. They had all of the hymns from church memorized and sang with all their hearts. In the Catholic church, parishioners only went to Communion if they had very recently been to Confession. Marriage was held in such high regard that most often, couples lived in common-law marriages until they believed they could truly carry out the meaning of the sacrament.
A decade ago, I left my position at a prestigious hospital in Michigan to live in Haiti. My experience in Haiti after the earthquake remains one of the most powerful impressions of joy I have ever had. After a catastrophe of surreal proportions and the death of up to 300,000 of their family, friends and colleagues, the people I met the night of my arrival at the field hospital were quiet. The injuries they had sustained were horrific. Infections had set into very complex fractures. Legs needed to immediately be amputated. I did not speak Haitian Creole and used my limited Spanish to communicate with a few of the people who were bilingual. In the darkness I wondered what, if anything, could ease the pain I could see in their eyes.
In the morning, after the surgeons had operated late into the night, I saw the actual number of patients lying in beds under tents or out in the sun. And they smiled at me. Through an interpreter, I slowly learned their names and injuries. I performed minimal interventions and brought patients out of the operating room as we continued to amputate and set bones. Then they started asking when they could get up and learn to walk. They wanted to start rehab right away. They were students, grandmothers, young children and professionals. They stared into my soul and so many times, I felt unworthy to look back at them. They had known more loss and pain than I could comprehend, and they were determined that this was not the end.
Two little girls who had the same limb amputated were placed next to each other under the same awning. They started talking to each other, reading the Bible and resting, and within hours the field hospital was infiltrated with peals of their laughter. A woman came in from the streets, wearing a Florida Gators t-shirt over a long skirt, and walked around the entire place saying hello to everyone. At night, she laid down on the rocks and slept soundly. She refused blankets when offered, content to rest on the concrete.
Babies were born in exam rooms. Patients were brought from further and further away, coming from the countryside. Families surrounded their loved ones who were dying, grateful to the visiting teams for the efforts we made to save the lives of their loved ones. They had nothing, not even the guarantee of the next moment, and yet they were filled with joy. They sat for hours, patiently waiting to be cared for. They shared their food with each other. They laughed as I attempted to speak their language. They held my hands and submitted to my care. They appreciated just being alive. Their determination was unlike anything I have seen before or since.
On Sunday morning, we awoke to the sound of a chorus. As we walked from our sleeping area to the main gathering space outside, a congregation of churchgoers approached the hospital with their pastor leading them. Every single patient joined in the song as the congregation sang it. That day, my Mass was washing the feet of Jesus in the disguise of His poor. We stood in silence and amazement as the entire property erupted in song and praise.
While I lived in Haiti, I had even more profound experiences. Every day I sat with children who created games and manufactured toys out of anything at all. They played soccer with empty soda bottles, just as if they were real soccer balls. They had huge smiles in spite of the numerous traumas through which they had lived. The nurses I worked with loved to sit and talk and listen to the Pentecostal service on the radio, teaching me the hymns and songs and enjoying just being together. The cooking staff, working in humid and stuffy shipping containers remodeled into kitchens, got excited when I approached them to ask for a special plate of my favorite dish of mashed corn with black beans. They were constantly laughing and joking together in the midst of incredibly difficult conditions. Even the babies were joyful. The sweet little patients who inhabited a room in the hospital, abandoned by their parents to the care of the staff, were the most joyful little souls. They loved being held and taken on outings, and cuddled and smiled and slept on our shoulders.
Those considered the poorest of the poor, those with no material things who share the one cup of rice or beans they may have in the house, those who sit together and are in no hurry to make an appointment on time, do so because they prefer to cherish the moments they have together. They warmly greet visitors, inviting us to sit with them and just be. The promptness and busyness and constant movement and hurried fast greetings and the “I have two minutes until I have to be at my next appointment” does not exist for them. They do not know if tomorrow will come, and they are aware of its uncertainty. They accept that death is a natural occurrence and take whatever time is needed to care for the dying and the family. There is beautiful ceremony and peace. They are completely dependent on God and His providence, provision, and sustenance. They possess a deep joy that runs much deeper than any material item can provide.
I have to remind myself much more often these days than when I first arrived back in the US, that every moment is important and should be honored, especially when shared. Joy comes from deep within and is a gift and a way of life. Happiness is circumstantial, but joy can be a permanent state of being, even in the midst of physical, spiritual or emotional pain. I yearn to live as one who is not reliant on circumstance, position, or possessions in order to live with joy.