Children run around barefoot. They pedal around on rusty bicycles. They play soccer with a flat, tattered ball. Adults spend hours sitting outside, noticing the weather, talking with their family and neighbors. Yet, all of these people, in various countries and places around the world, have one thing most of us are missing.
I first noticed this one thing when I traveled to the small Central American county of Belize in 2010. We stayed on Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile long island with a population of under 20,000. With an island this small, you only had one beer to choose from (Beliken), there were minimal cars—the tourist used golf carts and locals walked and used their bikes, and you could hear English, Spanish, and Creole within a matter of seconds walking down the street. Despite being a poverty-ridden locale, most of the people spoke at least two, if not three languages.
As my husband and I journeyed in and out of the town of San Pedro on a daily basis, utilizing the bikes at our hotel and on foot, I couldn’t help but notice the people. It’s what I love most about traveling and offers me the most perspective and insight into my life here in America.
One afternoon, as we walked into town, the school children were making their way home. It was in that moment, I saw something I’d never seen before. The children scattered out onto the streets, chasing each other, laughing. The majority were heading home without parents or caretakers by their side. The children seemed to be relying on their own ability to take care of themselves and in the camrederieship of the other children. They were laughing and joking and making the most of their journey to their next destination (possibly home, but likely to their parents place of work).
As they scurried home on their bikes, fully dressed in their blue and white school uniforms, I saw a sense of joy and freedom like I’d never seen before. The joy and ease exuded from their faces. What I was seeing was not just remarkable, but I distinctly remember knowing how I’d never, ever seen joy like that on a child’s face in America.
What I was seeing was not just remarkable, but I distinctly remember knowing how I’d never, ever seen joy like that on a child’s face in America.
That one thing, that thing that the poorest people in the world get, that we don’t… is JOY!
Even with all the STUFF, the toys, the gadgets, the devices, the luxuries… kids here don’t experience this same joy. A joy that I believe comes through the freedom of not having all that stuff, toys, gadgets, devices, and luxuries. A child without anything can find the most fascinating moment in a rock, a stick, or chasing their friend on a bicycle.
It’s joy, in such a beautiful way, that’s its hard to describe until you experience it. It’s one of the reasons, that when I get to travel, I want to see how real people live. Don’t take me to the five-star resorts. Show me the culture, show me the joy.
I witnessed this same joy when I visited the Children’s Shelter Foundation in Thailand in 2013. There, you’ll find over twenty orphaned children who loved life more than any middle or upper class American child ever would.
Then, last night, I met with a woman who emigrated from the Congo in 2007. I asked her many questions about her journey, the food, her life, what’s she been able to accomplish since being here. Then, I asked her, “What are the people like in the Congo?”
She took a deep breath as if she almost didn’t want to say it out loud.
“You know, people there are extremely poor. But, they have joy. They have joy like people here don’t know and don’t have.”
I took a deep breath with her. I’ve known this. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. But hearing her say it back to me, solidified it even more.
Americans, one of the wealthiest groups of people in the world, don’t know joy. The true joy, a joy that comes from freedom of stress, freedom of stuff.
It’s something we are inherently missing in our country and our culture. The stress of our jobs, the worries and fears that are unwarranted about our safety and our lives, the endless tasks we force upon ourselves, the desire for more stuff… all of it is keeping us from relishing in a joy that a woman from the Congo who doesn’t know if she’ll wake up safe the next day can experience. A joy, where children without a family, embrace their new home in Thailand. A joy that is only obtainable by the freedom of being without.
So don’t pity the poorest of poor, in fact, they’ve got something to be envious of. Show them empathy, show them respect, but don’t think joy doesn’t exist simply because they don’t have the latest piece of technology, their clothes are slightly worn and tattered, and their meals may look the same each and every day. Instead, learn from them. Realize the richness in not having, the joy in simply being where-ever they are, without a care or concern of what can be lost or taken from them.