It was far too dark for 10am, thunder booming like cannon fire. The rains made war against the earth; winds beating branch and leaf and limb without mercy. And for the first time in the last eight months we lost power at our house. Howls of delight resounded from the man-cubs who a) sensed this meant at least some degree of interruption in the school day, and who b) declared affectionately that it felt like Africa.
Precisely three things happened in the next ten minutes, two of which were fully normal and then a third which I found strangely unsettling. Firstly, the boys gathered all available bedding they could find and set to work constructing the finest fort their imagination and engineering could afford. Secondly, Paul and I grabbed our mugs of morning hope and fled to the covered porch in the back. We gave our eyes and ears to the rain and drank our coffee and reminisced about Africa, sitting there like two people who really do know that sometimes grownup work needs to be interrupted by coffee dates in the rain as much as man-cubs need to build forts.
Then there was the third thing, whereby Paul received an automated call from the power company saying they were aware of the power outage at [insert our address] and they were working to resolve the issue. The power would be restored, they claimed, at or before 2:15pm. (It was, for the record, resolved by noon.)
And it triggered an uneasiness deep inside. Before you assume that I’ve lost my mind, let me clarify that our electricity provider having good customer service and prompt problem resolution was not in itself what troubled me; moreso it was just another one of the many scenarios in any given week that whisper the same simple but haunting truth: life is so easy for you here. The thing is: if I still struggle with anything in transitioning back to life in the States, it’s how to settle into life in a land that obsesses over ease and comfort and convenience without settling into my own obsession with ease and comfort and convenience.
It’s not that I prefer things to be hard and uncomfortable or that I enjoy struggles for difficulty’s sake. But here is what I know because I have experienced it first hand: the more we insulate ourselves with all the comfortable convenience we can afford, the more we rob our own selves of the strength and resilience that come from laboring through challenges, the more we lose touch with the world outside our bubble of material abundance, and the more we allow our perspective to become so distorted that we begin to view even the smallest obstacles as if they were tribulations and injustices.
During our few years in Africa we lost power what some experts might call “A Lot of Times.” Sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Sometimes the power would come back on without any effort on our part; sometimes not. If we needed a technician to come to our house, we drove to the local office of the electricity department first thing in the morning and brought one back. And if we struggled to understand their Kinyarwanda or be understood by them, we recruited a helpful bilingual neighbor to translate for us. And perhaps they would have the ladder to get up our power line pole or perhaps another technician had it and we would try again the next day… or perhaps they would simply send us home with replacement parts for our own power line. And maybe the work they needed to do at our house involved drilling a hole that they left in the living room wall which we just covered with a decorative basket to keep out the birds. You get the idea.
Am I saying that I loved the struggle for consistent electricity those years? No. Paul’s ability to work depended on the power. It was hard. Sometimes it just about broke my sanity. But here is the beautiful part- it eventually also broke my subconscious sense of entitlement to the American lifestyle of “everything everywhere should be just as I want it and need it all the time, and is there a way that can happen while requiring even less effort on my part than it already does?” I hadn’t known how much of that still liked to make itself at home in my thinking. Life is much better without it. I’d just as soon not start feeding that monster again if at all possible.
Perpetual power is a good thing. Clean water is a good thing… as is a working car and blazing internet and a capacious washer and dryer and the magic box that cleans all my dishes and paved roads everywhere I go, heat when it’s cold, A/C when it’s hot, and online access to anything I need (with free shipping too). All good things.
But we all know that too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a good thing. (If that’s not true, then I’m not eating nearly enough ice cream.) It has nothing to do with guilt; and it’s not even about gratitude, which is to say- I don’t feel (or think that I should feel) guilty for being an American who lives with certain American realities. And while I erupt in spontaneous thanks many times a day over any number of things, I know gratitude alone is not necessarily the parent of purposeful simplicity and joyful contentment. What is needed is also the wisdom that discerns how to live under the truth that “all things are permissible for me but not all things are beneficial.” The daily sorting through of that can still be a bit foggy for me here. Sometimes guarding your heart in this place feels an awful lot like being caught in a storm, the kind where thunder booms like cannon fire and the rains make war against the earth…
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. – Proverbs 4:23
by Sarah Stehlik
May 20, 2016