I just read one of those stories that can make you rejoice or make you depressed. It’s a story of hope, with a happy ending. But like the beautiful rose that grows up through a pile of stinking garbage, I make a choice as to what I give my attention to… to the loveliness or to the stench, because both of them are in there, and both of them are real.
World Vision’s wonderful and wide-ranging child sex trafficking prevention program in India helped two girls find the courage, the reasoning and the resources to avoid becoming child brides. Each girl is growing up in abject poverty, the kind that clouds and supersedes the reasoning of struggling parents, blinds them to the risks of child marriage and the illegality of it, and convinces them that the entire family will be better off if they simply marry off the girls, truncating their educations, their dreams, their futures.
But two girls, Rivana and Mounira, living in two different villages and participating in two different World Vision “Girl Power” groups used their new awareness, skills and resources to get their parents to relent, allowing them to stay in school instead of forcing them to marry. The training, the empowerment, the girls’ courage and resourcefulness… all of these are wonderful encouragements about the efficacy of the Girl Power aspect of this expansive project. Now Rivana and Mounira can bloom into womanhood and more fully pursue their dreams and their God-given potential.
Over the years and decades, I’ve expertly honed the skills needed to spot the flower in the story. Yes, I recognize the garbage and even try to understand it, because it provides important context for understanding the dangers surrounding them and their hard-won victory over their circumstances. If we don’t know the deficits someone started with, it’s difficult to truly celebrate their accomplishment in rising above those difficulties. Call this “identification with the poor” or call it empathy; it’s an important skill in my work, and one that I often find myself transferring to supporters and others I work with who don’t readily understand the context of global poverty.
But here’s the rub: over the years I’ve become extremely adept at skipping right over the pain embedded within that context. I’ve disciplined my olfactory sense so I only smell the rose, without being repulsed by the pungency of the garbage. And by doing this, I’ve become focused only on the happy ending.
When do I mourn the conditions these girls and millions of other children grow up in? When do I grieve that parents can become so blinded in their poverty as to marry or sell-off their underage daughters? When do I allow myself to be overwhelmed with the stubborn structural issues still holding back these girls and their families from “life in all its fullness?”
My current answer is: I don’t. Call it “grief deferred” perhaps, but I’ve trained myself to bypass the pain and cling tenaciously to hope in the victories. Hope is so very critical. And hope is real. It’s valid, and it keeps me fighting the good fight. We’re winning the fight against extreme poverty! So why not focus on hope? After all, we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” not weep for them.
But hope is not the only truth here. Rivana and Mounira and their families are still terribly poor. One still wakes at 5 AM to cook, travels three hours round-trip to attend school, then walks an hour to fetch water afterward. Because these girls were unlucky enough to be born into poverty and also into the female gender, they have a doubly-difficult road ahead. Somewhere, sometime, this truth is worthy of acknowledging, and of mourning.
This week, I met with a faithful supporter of this India project, having sent him the story the night before we got together. He immediately commented on what a tough life these girls have. I was so focused on celebrating their success in avoiding early marriage that his comment caught me off-guard. He was very pleased about their success, as well. But he hadn’t lost the ability to see both realities: both their wins and their many remaining deficits.
The realities of extreme poverty often overwhelm those of us who are not poor, and this can lead us to hopelessness. I’m determined to not become hopeless, to not become overwhelmed and thereby get sidelined by paralysis.
But something is itching to come out of my pores, to be acknowledged, seen for what it is, and even felt. I think it’s been stuffed in there for a long time. Perhaps it even got lodged in my colon.
This is not okay. It’s not healthy for me to never simply sit and grieve the putrid filth surrounding these roses.
Without question, the poor don’t need pity; they need empowerment—stronger voices and better choices. My becoming overwhelmed won’t help them, and it won’t help me.
But the fear of becoming overwhelmed has somehow gotten stuck in my craw and short-circuited the fullness of my being. I need to find that via media or “middle way” where tears are allowed alongside hope; tears which are cleansing, not debilitating.
Roses can be exquisitely beautiful. But if you’re not careful when admiring them, you can walk away carrying rotting garbage on your shoes for a long time and not even know it.