I live in a tropical paradise. I can see the glorious, sparkling Indian Ocean from the staff room at school, peeking between the trees at my house, and when I run errands around town. For fun we take a little boat to an uninhabited island and snorkel. The weather is always warm; even in “winter” it rarely goes below 66 at night. I am surrounded by Africans who are almost always warm and friendly, eager to help and eager to talk. I can walk down the road and buy melt-in-your-mouth pineapples for under a dollar, tomatoes, onions, bananas….or barbequed meat and French fries. A sense of adventure pervades every activity since life is usually unpredictable. I live in a large 3 bedroom house with a yard big enough for a soccer field, for less than what we paid for our tiny, one-bedroom apartment in California. I have a house worker who comes 5 mornings a week and does my cleaning and laundry.
Even better, my husband and I get to work and do ministry every day at a school we absolutely love. We get to spend our days with a staff from around the world who are so totally committed to the Lord and to the school that they are willing to raise support and essentially volunteer to work here. We work with students from 35 different countries who like to talk about deep things and for the most part have been shielded from the materialism and cynicism of their western peers. We have the privilege of feeling like we are doing something significant for eternity that fits our gifts perfectly, and we get to have fun while we do it.
Sound great? Envious? It’s all true. But this is also true:
We live in a developing country. Very little infrastructure exists in the city. That translates into snarled traffic where most drive dangerously, little law enforcement, garbage piled next to the streets, and no public parks. Customer service is not a cultural norm. I have to learn to adapt to a whole new system of living: there’s no yellow pages when something breaks, cultural standards of politeness and gift giving and hospitality are all different. There are often a lot of bugs. And rats. And snakes. Electricity and water supply are unpredictable. The humidity is suffocating for most of the year. Crime is high. Our car has been broken into twice; three of our friends have had violent house robberies in the past year.
Our students hand us a multitude of problems: eating disorders, self-injury, depression. Yet there are no counselors; not even the local church is equipped to deal with such issues. It’s also emotionally draining for us to form friendships with other missionaries because they are usually so transient. Every year at HOPAC, we lose and gain 30-50% of our staff. After this school year, my husband and I will be the longest-standing teachers at HOPAC—after only 7 years. Every single person there will have worked for fewer years than us. My husband has not had a close male friend for 3 years, simply because most of the young teachers at HOPAC are female. Up until this year, we have been the only staff members with young children. If we are lucky, we see our families once a year. Loneliness is often present.
I am not trying to evoke envy or pity. I’ve just been thinking about how every situation in life has two perspectives. I find that when I am in a good mood, I focus on the first perspective. When I’m in a bad mood, I focus on the second. Yet both perspectives are equally true. It’s simply a matter of what I will choose to focus on.
“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” How often do believers quote this verse to get them through any number of situations? Yet, in context, the verse is talking about contentment. “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” And what is that secret? “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
Paul gives us another strategy earlier, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”
I can choose what I think about? I can choose what I focus on? Indeed!
My desire: To resist allowing my mood to dictate which perspective I focus on, and instead train my focus to dictate my mood.