“I Stumble and I Fall” – the Poverty Challenge

For a long time I have wanted Cecily Thew Patterson to write a guest post for me. I first met Cecily when I returned to Pakistan with my husband and we were working at the boarding school I attended through high school. At the time Cecily was a pretty, outgoing girl who already had the marks of a strong woman. Cecily is now a beautiful and strong woman.  I hesitated asking her for a post because I know she has several writing projects going on, as well as many other hats to wear. But today I get to introduce you to Cecily and her writing as she takes us into a struggle many of us have – the poverty challenge. She shares personally and poignantly from the perspective of someone raised in Pakistan.

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Like Marilyn, I grew up in Pakistan. Like Marilyn, I also went to boarding school in the Himalayan mountains. And I’m guessing that I was like Marilyn in the way that all junior high kids resemble each other. We all have to work out who we are by facing challenges. Some will make us grow and fly and others will make us stumble and fall.

Clothes were the challenge that made me stumble and fall.

While none of us were wealthy, some people in our school did better than others in the clothes department. I felt like I always had trouble trying to look nice. There weren’t any western clothes shops in Pakistan, I didn’t have a lot of things sent out from Australia, so whatever I could get that was a bit fashionable was really precious to me. I couldn’t just replace a ripped shirt or update old shorts. I had to take care of my stuff. I really wanted to look nice and fit in so I tried hard.

The reason I was at boarding school was because my parents lived in the Sindh desert in a tiny village. There were no local schools for me to go to so my brothers and I went away to study. Even though our school was not in a well-to-do area of Pakistan, and there was plenty of poverty around us, it was still always a big shock when we went home to the village for our three-month winter holiday every year.

Pakistani Family (courtesy of Tim Irwin)

The poverty in rural Sindh is confronting. People are extremely poor, many living in traditional mud huts. There’s no power and no piped water and not much transport. Everything is done by hand. Some people my parents knew were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat more than twice a day. They didn’t even have any sugar for their tea.

Most people had two sets of clothes; one for every day and one for weddings. And because the weather was extremely hot for nine months of the year, many people didn’t have any clothes that would keep them warm in the winter.

It was a hard place to live. And I had a soft heart. I really wanted to help. It broke my heart to see people struggling so much when I had everything I needed and wanted. I really wanted to make a difference.

An opportunity came when we went out to a town called Mithi to visit some friends. This family had brought in a big load of second-hand jumpers and jackets and were going to give them out to a few specific villages that were really poor.

I was excited to be invited to join in. This was going to be my first real hands-on experience of helping people in dire need and I was feeling nervous but also a bit righteous at the same time.

Out we went one evening in the landrover to the villages. We gave out all the jumpers and sweaters. But then we realised there weren’t enough for everyone. Some people had to miss out.

And then someone tugged at my sleeve and pointed to my jumper. I didn’t speak her language but I knew what she was saying. “Can I have that jumper?” she asked with her expression and her body language.

I was shocked. I was wearing a turquoise sweatshirt that I loved. It had come from Australia, it was my favourite colour and it went with heaps of things. I only had six sweaters and this was my best one.

But the woman tugging at my sleeve was asking if she could have it. She had no sweatshirts and there were more people in her village who had none as well.

What would you have done? Would you have given her the jumper? Or would you have kept it?

Throughout junior high school I met a lot of challenges and many of them were opportunities for me to grow and fly. This woman, tugging at my sleeve, was the challenge that made me stumble and fall. Flat on my face.

I said no.

I gathered myself up and I moved into the landrover where she couldn’t reach me. I talked to myself and told myself that it was ok, that I couldn’t be expected to give up my own sweater, that if I had given it to her my mother would have been cross because she couldn’t have replaced it, that I needed it for school, and besides, it wouldn’t be good if I didn’t look after my own things. I told myself that the woman would be okay, that she was probably just a ‘taker’ and that she shouldn’t have asked.

I still wish, 25 years later, that I had taken off my turquoise sweatshirt and given it to the hungry, thin woman who asked me for it.

And I’m still struggling to know how to respond when I come face to face with real people who have bigger needs than I do. I wish I was more generous, but I’m scared of what might happen if I am. Pray for me.

How do you respond to poverty? How have you responded? It’s a hard but necessary conversation so join in through the comments.

Author Bio: Cecily Paterson is trying to live an uncluttered life, although she feels like she’s behind the eight-ball to begin with in having four children and a recalcitrant dog to feed and keep happy. Cecily is an author, most recently of Love, Tears & Autism, a memoir of the five years following her son’s diagnosis with autism. She’s a fan of honesty and candour and always tries to tell the truth. While she grew up in Pakistan, she’s very happy now to live in small town Australia and would prefer not to move for a long time. Cecily blogs at Cecily.Mostly. Check it out!

Reader Response: Tea and Soul Care


Tea matters
. The responses from readers on tea gave personal pictures from Laos to Pakistan to South Africa of what tea means and why tea matters. All the comments were rich with memory and feeling, but I’ve picked one that spoke to my soul today. It’s one of the reasons I love blogging – I am the recipient of wisdom and challenges through reader comments. I have turned this one comment into a post and pray that it will speak to your soul the way it spoke to mine.“Tea and Soul Care”  is penned by Ruthie McCurry Dutton, a former class mate from Murree. We reconnected this past year through Facebook and blogging and it makes me want to see her again in person and share a cup of tea.  Ruthie has lived a nomadic life and offers a glimpse of her life in this piece.

Tea–my “go-to” for every occasion and metaphor for qualities that I find important. Tea meant comfort and happiness in my early memories of Pakistan: sweet and milky, sitting in my beloved nanny’s lap; a strong brew capping off my first exciting day at boarding school; the mad rush at break, when I was finally old enough to get my tea from the hole-in-the-wall stall across the road.

As a newly married bride, my mother-in-law introduced me to ritual and reverence through the very rare occasions when we used her exquisite collection of bone china cups. We carefully warmed the pot while boiling the water. We added just the right amount of leaves and waited patiently for it to steep. Aaaah….the perfect cup.

When life and ministry took me to the frontiers of Laos, I traded delicate cups for floral- patterned china mugs each one unique. They reminded me to look for the beauty all around me—be it the landscape or in the variety of people with whom I shared a cup. Each person and scene had a beauty of their own to be savored and appreciated.

In my newly nomadic life, a delicate china mug accompanies me. I love sipping from it as I share the pre-dawn hours with Jesus. This delicate mug, so easily chipped, reminds me of the importance of soul care. Each reverent sip is an in-pouring of the Holy Spirit, a source of strength for what my day brings. Now, instead of my beloved nanny, I feel the warm embrace of Abba Father.

Crossing both the globe and the span of time tea remains my constant companion, its symbolism and meaning growing and changing. For today it means warmth and comfort, sacred ritual, unique beauty, and God’s goodness. Life is richer over a cup of tea.

Guest Post: You Know You Live Downtown Cairo When….

As a mom who is miles away from all but one of her children, I am acutely aware of my inability to protect them. There are also times when I realize how much I don’t know about their lives. This awareness reached a new level when I read a post that my daughter had written from February 6th on living in Cairo, specifically downtown Cairo. So today’s post is a guest post from that day by my daughter, Annie. It is a reminder to me that Egypt is fragile, and people live everyday within the fragility. It is a reminder to pray for Egypt and for those who live there, both Egyptians and others.

Started a meme in my head, “You know you live Downtown when…” It goes something like this. YOU KNOW YOU LIVE DOWNTOWN CAIRO WHEN:

  • You carry your gas mask with you, everywhere, just in case.
  • You carry loads of cash, in various pockets, all over your person, just in case.
  • Your getaway bag is packed and ready if need be, right next to the cat carrier, just in case.
  • You walk down your street, thank the young man who is at the ready to spray saline solution into your gas-afflicted eyes, and carry on your merry way.
  • You direct your guests first to the baking soda, with which to wash their burning face, then to the arak which is somehow the only alcohol you have insanely copious amounts of.
  • You begin to notice that your tolerance for this gas stuff is a lot higher than others’.
  • You’ve developed a significant prescription drug habit.
  • You begin to prefer walking alone; others’ skittishness during gas-induced stampedes impedes your own perfected ability to walk calmly and quickly in any given situation.
  • Your ear is trained to know which bangs warrant going onto the balcony, and which don’t. (Fireworks are worth it; the displays are always well-done, bless you football fans)
  • When the police are out, you don’t leave the building.
  • You check Twitter to make sure you can get home, even though you’re fully aware of how largely useless it is.
  • You resent your friends for not checking the news before they talk to you, you resent your family for not being more worried about you, you resent acquaintances for telling you to “be safe”.

* * *

Today, a G-Chat with Tony:

me: tony I am worried about reintegrating into a society where there aren’t bombs and gunshots always

Knowing you have to get out (sanity? I guess?) but knowing that you can’t. Knowing that, just like last January, just like October, November, next week will be different. Next week will be art shows and dinner at Greek Club and late-night screaming matches at Stella and dinner parties and brunch at the CFCC and buying your produce just like nothing ever happened.

The thing I learned is that humans are so simultaneously fragile and resilient.

Annie on her rooftop, downtown Cairo

Guest Post ~ Narratives of “Lived Time”

I am delighted to have Tiffany Kim guest post for me today. I met Tiffany through mutual friends this past fall and when we were finally able to meet for lunch, despite age difference, it was instant friendship.  After a conversation on a recent post we had a discussion on the importance of stories. It was at that time that I asked her if she would be willing to write a post. I am grateful that she said yes! Tiffany is a wife, friend, world traveler, foodie, writer, researcher (collector of stories), and nurse. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts and offers this post on stories.

We seem to have no other way of describing “lived time” save in the form of a narrative.–Jerome Bruner

I’ve always loved stories. I love hearing stories, I love making new stories and I love sharing them later. Ask me sometime about when I tried San Pedro, a psychedelic cactus brew, with a Shaman in the Peruvian Andes. Or my moonshine experience in Appalachia – it involved a fat pony, a $20 bill and a rock. But there are also some stories that I am tempted to try and forget. We all have them and these narratives of suffering, perhaps more than the others, can come to define what we believe about our world and ourselves. Yet, these are the very stories that we do not share with each other.

I recently finished my PhD in Nursing at The University of Pennsylvania. While I was there, I set out to study the problem of sexual violence among women in transition. More specifically, I looked at intimate partner sexual violence (also known as marital rape), in a group of Mexican immigrant women living in Philadelphia. I wanted to understand these women’s experiences of sexual violence in the context of their transition and movement across borders. No one else had ever done a study quite like this, and I knew that I would need to think carefully about how I might go about constructing such a dissertation. In the end, I decided to use a method called Narrative Analysis, a qualitative research method that focuses on the ways people make and use stories to interpret their world. I chose this method, because I was not so much interested in the historical facts of the stories, but rather the meanings women ascribed to them. In essence, why someone tells a story and how that person chooses to tell it, can be as important as the story itself.

My choice of dissertation topic mean that I would have the honor of bearing witness to many women’s amazing stories of unimaginable trauma, survival and courage. I found that the content of many women’s stories were similar – childhood sexual abuse, dating violence, abusive marriages, the hardships of immigrant life, poverty and the importance of family and children. Although suffering was clearly the major theme throughout all of their stories, I found it fascinating that the women chose to tell me about their suffering in strikingly different ways. Even though they had all experienced remarkably similar abuse, women structured their narratives quite differently. Why did some women tell me about continuing to endure through a lifetime of suffering with little hope for the future, while others told me about leaving that suffering behind? (If I knew the answer to this I’d immediately start selling self-help books and make a million dollars.) But it’s got me to thinking – how do I organize and tell my own stories of suffering?

The way we choose to organize our stories speaks volumes about our current mental health and our own healing. And while we can’t change the actual events in our past, is it possible for us to reconsider the meanings we’ve ascribed to them? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that stories are important. Fully exploring our own narratives first requires that we share them with each other. Once a story is told in the presence of another person, it’s amazing how it can morph and change – entire plots, themes and characters that were previously overlooked can come into the light. So, let’s grab some coffee (or chai) and sit down for a bit. I know we both have some stories to share…

And, if you’d like to read more about the women I interviewed, you can click here for a link to my dissertation:

http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?Ver=1&Exp=12-21-2016&FMT=7&DID=2465750981&RQT=309&attempt=1&cfc=1

Join the discussion on stories through the comment section!

Guest Post – Into the darkness there came a Great Light

Ganges River, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Image via Wikipedia

Bhai Lal was our electrician in Varanasi. He lived down near the Ganges River. His wife had died years before and he parented half a dozen hooligans on his own. Bhai Lal was an entrepreneur. He had crazy ideas and they worked! One year he created a boat entirely out of recycled water bottles. He would row into the middle of the river to demonstrate how clever his little boat was. His electrical skills enabled him to add lights to his boat. It glowed red and blue and green down into the water. We’d shake our heads and laugh, which was exactly the reaction Bhai Lal wanted!

Bhai Lal was an electrical genius. If our electricity ever went out, or if there was a mysterious brown out that affected just our house, or if half our house had lights but the other half didn’t we’d go up to the south-eastern corner of our roof and call down for Bhai Lal. If Bhai Lal wasn’t there we’d groan and ask whoever was down in the darkness to give him a message to come as soon as he could. If Bhai Lal was there he’d shout right back up at us that he was coming. He’d come and chatter away as he twisted and tweaked wires, fiddled with fuses, taping and splicing light back into our rooms, current back into our outlets.

Bhai Lal believed in a good sense of humour, he believed in working hard, he believed in the Hindu pantheon and he believed that as long as he stood on a piece of cloth he would not be electrocuted—in fact he’d take off his rubber flip-flops and stand on a measly rag and claim he was now safe!

Christmas in 2005 was a particularly intense holiday. Together with friends we had written a Christmas pageant and I was the director. The play would be performed on our property adjacent to our home. Lowell, the prophet Simeon in our production, had to have an emergency appendectomy on the 22nd of December. He was released from the hospital on the 23rd. We had our last dress rehearsal on the morning of the 24th. I then commissioned the cast to go home and celebrate Christmas. We would meet again on Christmas Day for the performance. The still weakened Simeon-Lowell and I walked back across the yard to our home determined to rest and celebrate the Advent of Hope. Lowell suggested we throw an impromptu party. Let’s invite all those of our friends who didn’t have any other place to be. Let’s celebrate Christmas. That was the plan.

Lowell received a very strange visitor shortly thereafter, just before lunch. Rajesh was a man we had known for years. He had dabbled in the demonic, he battled bipolar, he was a displaced soul with a need to incite and provoke. In the guise of visiting Lowell who was still recovering from surgery, Rajesh showed up. He went straight to the roof, where we often entertained guests in the winter–the river expansively displayed, the sunlight bathing the day in a comforting glow, and he settled in. From there Rajesh proceeded to shout horrendous insults. He blasphemed. He cussed. He set up several Hindu idols and proclaimed their deity over our house and over the city. He threatened our children. He promised to return on Christmas Day to destroy the pageant. He jumped over the wall and stood precariously close to the edge of our roof and the 30 foot drop to the river. Lowell didn’t know if he’d jump or not. And Rajesh wouldn’t leave. We called his wife. We called friends for advice. We called a friend with connections at the psychiatric hospital. Rajesh got louder and louder, his insults more horrifying, his threats more unnerving as the day went on. Lunch time and supper time came and went– still he stayed.

Our friends began to trickle in for the party. We no longer really wanted a party but we wanted desperately to reclaim Christmas and we needed the comfort of friends. I made hot cocoa. We pulled out snacks and tasty treats. We added space in our party for Rajesh’s wife and his two bewildered, pained children.

Suddenly, and without cause, our electricity surged. We were supposed to have 220 volts but it rarely came in any higher than 170. In the middle of that moment the current surged well over 300 volts. Everything in the house not connected to a voltage stabilizer blew! We were submerged in complete darkness. It was the sympathetic element reinforcing the state of our spirits. I felt so trapped. We lit the candles and because our invertor still was working Lowell was able to push play on our Christmas movie. None of us wanted to venture to the roof to summon Bhai Lal. That could wait. For now the party would continue. Lowell pushed play and we all tried to push mute on the sounds still coming off the roof. Alas, it wasn’t the sounds of “eight tiny raindeer”…

Eventually, about three-fourths of the way through our movie, nine and a half hours after he arrived on our roof, Rajesh came down. Lowell and I and Rajesh’s family all accompanied him to the gate. We wished them a Merry Christmas and it was over.

And then we called for Bhai Lal. He wasn’t home. We went to bed despondent in the dark.

Christmas day, after a special family morning of gifts and brunch and remembering the birth of Christ, we began in earnest to prepare for the evening pageant. Lowell rested and reviewed his lines. I supervised the tents going up, the generators set up, the lights being strung, the strings of flowers being hung. The caterers organized the food: the samosas were fried, the tomatoes and onions cut up for the chutney, the tamarind and the yogurt sauces ready for the pani puri. The sound people came in. Speakers were hung precariously from poles. Systems were tested with countless, “hello…. Hello…. Hello”s.

And after Mary had given birth to a doll-Jesus and the shepherds had rushed to see, and knocked over the lantern in the stable. After the wisemen traipsed through the crowd of nearly three hundred guests, one of them tripping over and stumbling after the star, and they discovered the Christ child. And after Simeon, the prophet who was missing his appendix, proclaimed loudly, boldly who the Christ was and why he was born… after all that— Bhai Lal showed up!

The play was over and it had been a huge success! While the music played on and the food was served I went back to change out of my costume and into my Christmas sari. I was so relieved that Rajesh hadn’t shown up! I was thrilled at how many people had come and how well the play had gone off! I was just putting on my bangles when Bhai Lal banged on the door. He shouted through the screen door that he was there! The timing wasn’t great but I was ready for the electrical problems of the previous night to be fixed. But Bhai Lal hadn’t come to fix our lights. He was full of joy and good news.

“Didi!! You won’t believe what I just heard on the radio! Did you know that God sent his son, the only one he had, at Christmas, as a baby? Did you know didi? Did you know that son was Jesus and he was born so that he could grow up and then he would die on the cross? Did you know this didi? I came to tell you! I came as soon as I heard! Jesus would die to save us from our sin? That’s how much God loves us! Did you know this didi?”

I stood staring at him through the screen door, the sounds of the music across the yard dimly playing in the background, a flashlight in my bangle bedecked hand, tears in my eyes. Yes, I nodded, I had heard that. Bhai Lal was radiant. His joy was enormous. Bhai Lal, the electrician was full of light. He had come as soon as he heard. He kicked off his shoes, and stood there, holiness all around him. We both stood, barefooted and aware of the sacred place. The dismal darkness, the spiritual claustrophobia, the entrapped spirit of Christmas eve replaced with Light and Space and Grace. I set down my flashlight. Christ was born!

Shout that from the roof tops!

Thank you Robynn Bliss for this Christmas Eve Read!

Taper, Trim and Snip: Nine Countries, Nine Haircuts!

Today is a guest post from Robynn Bliss. Robynn has written other posts and beautifully articulates the complexity of living between worlds as it relates to normal life events. In this post she takes us on a journey through something common to women and men everywhere, haircuts!

One of my ridiculous claims to fame is that I’ve had my hair cut in 9 countries. It may seem a silly thing to say at a dinner party or over coffee with a friend, yet remembering those nine countries keeps me connected to my story while at the same time holding out hope for a trim in a tenth country somewhere, sometime!

Pakistan

Growing up in Pakistan meant many childhood haircuts. The ones where I’d sit on the edge of a charpai (rope bed) in our courtyard so mom could cut my bangs, or perch on one stool on top of another outside Utopia house in the summer with the wide expansive views of the Himalayas and my chin tucked into my chest so the back of my hair could be trimmed by Auntie Carol. Then there were the boarding school haircuts in dorm rooms—some quickly and surreptitiously done by friends by the light of flashlight, others by dorm mothers with proper plastic sheets and the hair cutting tools to taper, trim, and snip!

Canada

Returning to Canada for college meant inexpensive haircuts for a dollar downstairs outside the student lounge by college girls anxious to earn extra pocket-money. After graduating and moving to the big city I could afford a haircut by Blair at Blessings and Co –a stylish, extravagant salon with warm lighting and classical music in the background.

Mexico

One Christmas my cousins and I travelled down to visit my aunt and uncle who were staying in Southern California. On Christmas day all 5 of us descended on friends wintering in Yuma, AZ in their RV. Vera cooked up a turkey in her miniature oven and prepared the fixings on her tiny stove. We ate Christmas dinner around the picnic table outside. On Boxing Day we decided to cross over into Mexico. I had needed a haircut so why not in Mexico? The back alley beauty parlour proudly boasted 4 women in floral aprons all sitting around gossiping in Spanish with nothing to do. They were thrilled for the business and for the distraction. “Haircut?” I enquired. Off they prattled an excited affirmative. They decked me out in a green sheet and started in. “Taper?” one asked. “Yes, taper it up in the back but then keep the longer layers in the front. Don’t cut my bangs! Cut it short over the ears.” I made my wishes known. “Taper?” she repeated, it was apparently the only English hair word she knew. She kept saying it as she cut and primmed and pranced all over my head, “Taper?…. taper?… taper?…” I kept smiling and nodding, “Sure!”

India

Lowell and I eventually married and moved to India. After a futile attempt to grow my hair so as to look more like my neighbors, one of my most notorious haircuts involved a four star hotel in Delhi, a friendly beautician, an excellent haircut and, at no extra charge, a terrible case of head lice! There was another memorable haircut from a friend who had a beauty parlour in her home. When I got home, Lowell, who isn’t particularly observant about things like hair, asked, “Is it supposed to do that in the back?” My sweet friend had hacked a chunk of hair out of my style. It took several months to grow it out!

England

One year as we were headed back to the US for meetings, I emailed ahead to ask my friend Dianne in New Jersey to please make me an appointment for a haircut immediately after we arrived and before the meetings began. Our route had us going through Kuwait City. There we encountered technical difficulties and were put up in an airport hotel for 24 hours. Next stop was London. Because we had missed our ongoing connection we were once again graciously given a room at The Edwardian Airport Hotel –the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in—for another 24 hours. Knowing I had missed my appointment in NJ, I walked down to the lobby of the hotel and discovered one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had at one of the highest prices I’ve ever paid!

Thailand

There was a haircut in Huahin, Thailand. Actually there were two. The first one, where the hair cutter (again) chopped off a little too much resulting in a hole on the side of my head. This was directly followed by another where a fellow traveler and tourist made a brave attempt at correcting it with a towel over my shoulders and a pair of nail scissors in the hotel lobby!

United Arab Emirates

A trip to the UAE to visit friends resulted in a luxurious experience in a posh beauty parlour. The Arab women, free from their black robes and public restraints, were chatty and outgoing. The latest fashions were uncovered, beautiful black hair was let loose. There was a vibrant intimacy in the air. Nails were painted, unwanted hair was waxed off arms and legs, faces were massaged with fragrant creams and oils, eye brows were shaped with dancing threads and of course hair was washed, cut and coiffed. It felt to me like I had entered a strange new mysterious world. It was a sensual and sizzling place. And I had my hair cut there!

Nepal

Kathmandu provided me a haircut at a funny little roadside parlour. The walls were covered in laminated pictures of lovely Chinese women with modern hairdos and Bollywood movie stars. The hair cut was inconsequential but I remember my senses being blasted with poignant incense burning, the garish vermillion paste and grains of rice on the forehead of my hair cutter and loud raucous blaring of those same Bollywood stars blasting their tunes.

Years ago a group came from Kansas to visit some others in Varanasi, the city in North India where we lived. When I heard that one of the visitors was a hair stylist I begged for a haircut! Judy popped by our house and there in the middle of our dining room on the banks of the Ganges river she cut my hair, another friend’s hair, and our girls’ hair. It was such a treat: a good haircut right in our own home.

United States

Now that we’re in Kansas that same Judy cuts my hair monthly. Coming from my world, it seems shamefully extravagant to have a good haircut that frequently. I pop over to her house and she cuts my hair in a room tucked off her dining room. Judy previously worked in a high-end salon and now works out of her home. She massages my scalp with a conditioner that smells expensive: all coconut and pineapple lather. She massages my soul as we talk about significant things: marriage, and grace and God. When the cut is done, she styles and spritzes and sprays and pretends that I’m a wealthy client.

Pakistan, Canada, Mexico, the UAE, England, Thailand, Nepal, India and of course here in the US… mine is a story punctuated by interesting haircuts in far off corners of the world. I wonder if and when the 10th country will be added to the list. On occasion I regret the places I’ve been where I failed to get my haircut! Even as I settle into the Midwest, my soul and my hair long for an adventure somewhere in a far off corner of the world sometime soon!

Guest Post: Community – All You Can Eat Buffet, or Home-Cooked Meal?

When I published a post called “Community, Connection & Loneliness” in late July, my nephew, Tim, had some insightful comments and at that time I asked if he would think about writing a post. I am thrilled that today’s post is a guest post from him. Tim Brown is the son of my brother Ed and sister-in-law, Susanna and is one of those people who I never feel I have enough time with, always thinking there is more to discuss or talk about. Take a look at the post and see what you think. Join the discussion in the comment section.

The growth of the internet has done for community what the invention of the buffet line did for eating cheap Chinese food. I’m sure that back in the dark ages if I wanted to eat Chinese I would have to choose between sweet & sour chicken and mushu pork and then decide whether I wanted it over fried rice or steamed rice. But now, with the fantastic invention of the all-you-can-eat buffet, choices have become a relic of the past. I can have it all, in quantity! I can choose the exact foods, and ratios of foods that best characterize my desires.

This is what social life on the internet is like. I can fill my circles, friends list and twitter feed with the people who I most desire to hear from. Distance is not a barrier to social and intellectual interaction. I can customize what I consume to best match my life. On a single screen I can view photos from my sister in Singapore, reflections on news stories that interest me, and food specials at my favorite restaurants. I am fully able to filter out those topics, opinions, or people who may be distasteful to me, guaranteeing the purity of my experience. I’ve also recently discovered that the rules of fiction and reality no longer bar me from the social life I want, as twitter allows me to have daily interactions with Lord Voldemort, President Bartlett, and Homer Simpson! My online community can be shaped to truly fit the person who I am.

I recently served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic, and my social life could not have presented a greater contrast. My neighbors down there would definitely not have been “suggested” on Facebook based on mutual interests or connections. They were semi-literate Spanish speakers who spent much of the day talking about pigs, coffee trees, and the weather. I was a university educated English speaker who liked talking politics and theology. Not a lot of common ground. Yet we were each others neighbors, and in a setting without electricity or cell phone reception your neighbors are your community. No social buffet here. I had to eat what was being served.

Cultivating these relationships was not easy. There were language barriers to overcome, cultural expectations to negotiate, and misunderstandings to remedy. This struggle to build relationships despite our differences became a shared experience of discovery, and caused a lot of laughter. From this journey of humor and education came a sense of community that I value very deeply. These relationships, built on a foundation of struggle, provided a satisfaction that my online community does not.

The same is true of my family. I did not choose them in the Facebook sense. I was born to them, and have cultivated relationships with them through hard work, shared experience, laughter, and many missteps. Yet despite frustrations and huge differences, my relationships with family members are among the most satisfying I have ever experienced with other human beings.

Why is it that I am so unsatisfied by my customizable online community, but fulfilled by the struggle of real life relationships? I think it is because un-customizable relationships force me to grow. When I choose my community based solely on mutual interest I am not required to really learn anything, and I am not challenged to practice patience, grace, or love in as meaningful a way. By encountering something seemingly foreign or distasteful, seeking to understand it, and embracing compromise I learn humility (as does the person I am interacting with), and humility is the basis of true community. It’s satisfying for the same reason that a home cooked meal tastes so much better than an all-you-can-eat buffet, and always will.

The Author - Tim Brown and his lovely wife, Kim

Bloggers Note: Tim Brown served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 2008-10, where he lived without electricity, commuted on horseback, and met his wife Kim. His musings on Peace Corps life can be read here. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in International Affairs at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and contemplating where the tide of life will carry him to next.