Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Danger of Despair

On Sunday, one of our pastors shared the story of a family of five in California who became casualties to the economic crisis. Both the mother and father had lost their jobs and it looked as though they might lose their home as well -- so the father took a gun and killed his wife and three children before killing himself. The story is tragic and devastating -- a father in such despair over how he will provide for his family that his solution is to take their lives.

Yet as I set there in the pew, thinking about this story, I couldn't help but realize that the situation that the family was now finding themselves in is no different than the reality lived by millions of people all over the world every day. And yet, it is rare to read stories from third world countries in Africa or South America or anywhere around the world where parents find themselves in such despair that they would take their children's life.

In these countries, poverty -- and the questions of where the next meal will come from or where one's children will sleep that night -- are daily realities. And no matter how hard or impossible things get, people just keep pressing forward, living day by day, grateful for what they have and depending on God's mercy and the mercy of others for their survival.

If this story has taught me anything, it's taught me that:

It is only when we have something and lose it that we go crazy.

When we have always been in a secure place and lose that security, that's when we fall into despair. I'm pretty sure that the people living in the third world do not derive their sense of self from their job or income as we do. How could they? Instead, it has to come from something deeper -- from appreciating the gift of life itself, and perhaps the community that is born of hardship.

My husband constantly reminds me of this reality. He grew up poor in Colombia and knows what it means to be hungry and to wonder where your next meal will come from. I, on the other hand, have always had all of my material needs met, and met far beyond what I actually need.

When my husband doesn't have work, I tend to get nervous and start worrying before we have even hit a place of hardship. My husband remains calm -- he knows that it will work out -- he's been there; he's walked that road before. And strangely, when he speaks of some of the most difficult times in his life, he does so with a smile. He is remembering the closeness of his family and friends -- and the good times they had even when everything around them seemed to be crumbling.

The other thing that astonishes me when I think about the tragedy of what happened to this despairing family is the fact that in our country, the USA, there are a number of social service programs that help the poor. I am certain that there are people that fall through the cracks, but in general, there are many places to go to seek help and find resources. If help can't be obtained from the government, a number of churches and charitable organizations have provisions to help families in need. My own church, the Salvation Army, is always assisting those in need on just about every conceivable level -- from help with groceries and utilities to providing a place for homeless families to stay.

This is in sharp contrast to the poorer countries of the world. In Colombia (and I'm sure many countries like it), if you don't have a job, you don't collect unemployment. There is no welfare or food stamps. The country doesn't have the structures or resources to help those in need. There is nowhere to turn. And yet still, the people living in these countries do not sink into the same depths of despair that we, who have many avenues of help available to us, do.

I believe that we have much to learn from the poor people of this world. From their understanding that life does not consist of security; to their willingness to share with their neighbors even when they have nothing for themselves. From their resiliency that refuses to let the depths of despair swallow them. To their ability to live and love --- and to love and appreciate life even when it seems like they'd have no good reason to do so.

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