Anyone in missions hears the same one phrase whenever groups are visiting: “They’re poor but so happy.” It’s an interesting observation, and it seems to come from every age group and income level of visiting Americans. What does this say about the culture of US consumerism? Why do we automatically equate our collection of stuff to happiness? If you look at happiness studies (yes, that’s a thing) for the most part, there is no correlation between income and contentment. Once a person’s basic needs are met, more money and more stuff adds nothing to their lives.
Here in Baja Mexico, every year we host a large group that comes down from a very wealthy area in Northern California. This group has been raised with all the worldly goods this life has to offer, and are all on track to ivy league schools. I know many of them are just serving here to add it to their resumes. I’m OK with this because we can still expose them to the “real world,” even if that’s not why they came. With this group, we make it a point to get them out to spend time at various ministries in our area and meet with the leaders. These are ministries working with some of the poorest of the poor and in some of the most challenging areas. Before I send the team, I suggest they watch the leaders who, in most cases, walked away from “successful” lives in America to come and serve the poor. I specifically asked them to watch and see if these leaders seem like they are suffering, or have they found purpose. Are these leaders fighting for a goal that is never within reach? Or have they found profound joy living a life in direct conflict with everything American culture teaches us about what is important? It leads to some great follow-up discussions about what matters in life and what we should be working towards. I want them to see and think about people who have taken a path far different than most of the examples they have in their lives. I want them to experience people of depth and purpose.
Most Americans spend so much time fighting for goals that don’t matter in the bigger scheme of things: the cooler car, the bigger house, more likes or followers on social media. So much of our lives are focused on things that will mean nothing someday when we’re laying on our deathbeds. We need to be working towards impactful, eternal things, goals that move life from drudgery to joy.
This past week many of the news stories have been about two very famous people who both committed suicide. These two people had reached the top of their chosen fields but still did not find enough in this life to keep moving forward. They had attained it all and found it was nothing after all. The default response when these things happen is to blame it on mental illness, that is not always the case. Frequently suicides are triggered by circumstances or events in a person’s life; they reach a point where they can’t deal with what the world is giving, or not giving them. Sometimes people are just worn down by the grind of trying to attain something that is just out of their reach. We will probably never know the real backstory on these two tragic, headline suicides. We do know they both, for whatever reason, had no reason to go on. Once they reached the top and looked around, they found nothing.
Each one of us might attain our own misdirected goals in this life. But whether it’s fame, money, prestige, or titles, they are only an empty, shallow, echo of joy. They might bring some short-term happiness, but it will fill that aching hollow in our lives for a short blip of time. We must find more, we must find purpose, we must find a relationship with our creator.
C.S. Lewis wrote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” We need to see the world, and our lives, through the eyes of our savior and redeemer. There is depth and joy in walking in Christ’s example. Most people are not called into missions or even full-time ministry, but we are called to follow Christ’s example of service to others. Walking in the shadow of Christ is brighter, warmer, and more fulfilling than standing in the full sunlight of anything this empty world has to offer.
Don’t spend your time climbing the ladder of success only to tragically find out there is nothing at the top. Have your ladder pointed in the right direction.
If you are in that dark place:
I’ve had two people in my social circles take their own lives in the last few years. Suicide is a tragedy for all those involved and echoes on in the lives of those left behind. If you have reached that point, or think someone in your life might, please seek help. There are people available who can help you. Please reach out to someone or call the number below.
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
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