I started thinking a bit about gratitude here after starting Henri Nouwen's book "Gracias." I sent an email to my friend Lee that sparked some reflections I'd like to share with you all.
Things are going really well for me here the last few weeks. The changing factor, I genuinely believe, is adopting an attitude of sincere gratitude.
I often have very little to offer here other than simply delighting in the people around me. Five months ago I had an opportunity to prove my competence every day through exams, meetings, and projects. I saw the fruits of my labor (usually). I knew I had value because I could contribute to my environment. I could set goals and meet them every day. I could work towards graduation or a new job or a good grade for months or years. Arriving in Bolivia, I couldn't reaffirm my worth in the same ways. I couldn't prove myself by checking items off my to-do list, and it was difficult to realize that the sisters and the girls weren't asking me to. Henri Nouwen describes how his own experience of vulnerability in Bolivia lead him to gratitude in his book "Gracias!"
"One of the most rewarding aspects of living in a strange land is the experience of being loved not for what we can do, but for who we are. When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak. That is true healing."
Being loved by the girls and by my community in Bolivia has nothing to do with my abilities. Getting an email from a friend or a package from my family has nothing to do with anything I can do for them from here. I often feel I am far from "earning my keep" here. The love I experience in the hogar and in Bolivia reflects the perfect love of Christ, who asks nothing in return. My existence is enough. Here in Bolivia I have the opportunity to feel the selfless love of God through the people around me, but it requires me to make myself entirely humble and dependent. I must experience my own weakness to better understand God's love through my hosts and the people supporting me from "home."
Because of this, it is difficult sometimes for us, as humans who desire to feel complete and in control, to simply receive. However, receiving is absolutely essential to understanding our relationship to God and to eachother. In addition, Nouwen reminds us that receiving is an act of liberation. When we receive one another with gratitude we remind each other of the trumendous power we have in our world. My willingness to receive is, I'm surprised to find, an act of service. Think of the people who have deeply impacted your life. It's likely they were people who listened to your story with eagerness, grateful to know you better. They asked you to teach them. They trusted you to exercise your power with love and responsibility by caring for them. In short, they received you and everything you had to offer with gratitude and a reverence for the unique being that you are. This reverence, this gratitude, this thankfulness is mine to offer when I am willing to admit that I am wanting for something here.
On the other hand, our unwillingness to receive from our communities places them in a position of subordinance. In Genesis 23, the Hittites try to give Abraham the land to bury his wife and he has a heck of a time persuading them to let him purchase it. Had he accepted it, he would not have an opportunity to be the rightful property owner. Their "generosity" was actually depriving Abraham (who was disadvantaged as a foreigner in that land) of an opportunity to build a life for himself. As affirming as it is to provide for the people around us, we must not do so at the expense of another's autonomy. Furthermore, When I refuse to be provided for by my host country, and I strive to impose my "competence" on them, I instill in them the same insecurity and helplessness that I myself feel as a displaced missionary, but in their own home and country. What a terrible trespass against my hosts.
Learning to be truly grateful for every email, every conversation, every little girl, every hour spent reading (over and over and over) the book about the crocodile lurking under the bed, has so dramatically changed my experience here. I was having so much trouble until I started ending the day by recounting what I received rather than what I contributed. The day suddenly became full and meaningful and beautiful when I meditated on the works of God rather than the works of my own hands.
In unrelated news: I learned how to eat chicken feet today. Champion!