When I first returned to the States after being a missionary kid in Bangkok for seven years, I found myself slipping my shoes off at the door and rearranging my feet so they were under the chair whenever a professor walked into the room. I wore my Thai customs with a badge of pride. I was different than all the college students around me. I had seen beggars on the street, AIDS patients lying in hospital beds they would die in, and poor, running water-less hilltribe villages: I knew what suffering looked like.
Or so I thought. I thought I would resist the temptations to become Americanized – obsessed with beauty, ever consuming, centered around the trivial. I thought I would keep hold of what was important – God, family, friends, living a holy life, helping people. I wouldn’t stoop to the level of my American friends who only cared about music, TV shows, and fashion.
But it’s hard to keep resisting when you really want to make friends in a country you are now unfamiliar with. So I started listening to the popular bands, buying clothes at the mall, applying more make-up, and making friends. (Now I ask: wouldn’t they have accepted me without the shopping sprees and make-up? I think they would have. But then, my perception was that I had to do those things to be liked.)
As I got to know people, I found that my American friends, in fact, did understand suffering. One of my friends had lost her father to cancer at the age of twelve. Another had suffered through verbal abuse growing up. Someone else had watched his parents go through a nasty divorce. Suddenly all the people I’d mentally labeled as fake caricatures were real, three-dimensional beings with complicated feelings and difficult experiences. And just as suddenly, my MK pride began to waver. Maybe some of these kids actually knew suffering better than I did. Maybe, like me, they did things to fit in, but really they were just looking for a friend they could trust.
As the years have passed, I have become more and more Americanized. I’ll point my feet at anyone now and I’ll wear shoes in the house sometimes. I’ll drive past the guy selling the homeless newspaper without much of a thought. I haven’t seen my natural hair color in years. I have to use two hands to count all the Apple products my family owns. It seems like I am always buying something. Usually it’s something we need, but maybe it’s just the incessant advertising that tells us we need it, I don’t know.
I’ve been reading Wendell Berry again:
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
then to belong to your own place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place it, and by
your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.*
A friend of mine just heard Berry speak in Nashville and shared with me a bit about his discussion on restlessness. That we can never be satisfied with where we are or what we have; nothing is ever good enough; we are bored, restless. It fits my life. I sometimes fill my time with meaningless activities: trolling Facebook, checking my email umpteen times, reading People magazine. I’m restless, searching for something to anchor me, and coming up empty.
How can I resist this restlessness?
How can I root myself in contentment, and beyond that – wonder?
How can redeem the place I inhabit?
Wendell Berry has always been an advocate for the earth, for living in the present, for loving the world and its creatures as a way of loving ourselves and God. Maybe it’s time to take his advice. To remember that all the iPads and iPods and social networks will rust away one day. To see that resisting the tide of celebrity and consumer culture may be how I start to release that restlessness.
To plant myself in the earth, to feel my roots burrowing down and soaking up life-giving water, to stand among the grove of living, pulsing things and know: this is my place. I can live, I can rest.
Today I am linking up with a roving synchroblog called Spirit of the Poor, which explores the intersections of economic justice, lifestyle change and spiritual wholeness. This month’s topic was Resist. Read more Spirit of the Poor posts here.
* From Leavings by Wendell Berry
Header image from Wikimedia Commons