Tuesday 6 September 2011

This first-world life

Where to start.

It's not a crisis of faith, exactly...more like a crisis of living. What am I to do with this first-world life of mine?

The question haunts me from the time I get up in the morning until I finally fall asleep again, hours after the lights are turned out.

I know I'm not the only one wrestling with this. Rachel is seeking to avoid complacency in the suburbs; Elizabeth is tired of this first-world Christianity; others, too, are questioning, seeking, searching.

It all just seems so...frivolous. I take my long hot shower and instead of relaxing into it, I am overwhelmed with sadness that others don't even have clean water to drink, much less clean hot water to leisurely bathe in. I wander the mall and feel so empty afterwards - stores full of clothes and food when so many call themselves blessed for the mere (leaking) roof over their heads and the (tattered) clothes on their backs. The culture of consumerism sickens me. I am repulsed by it and yet a part of it and the internal struggle leaves me dizzy.

I question everything. I decorate my home and wonder if making it beautiful is wrong. Yes, it's lovely...but what's the point? What's the cost? I sweep and mop and dust and it all feels so pointless. Yes, it's shiny...but why? Do I spend too much time on things that don't truly matter? Is it wrong to have "nice things"?

I sit and read and it feels so good and so wrong at the same time. Others are toiling, back-breaking work, in hopes of bringing home enough food to partially fill their children's bellies, and I'm just sitting on my couch, casually reading a book? browsing the web? pinning lovely things to my Pinterest boards? watching a movie? sipping my tea? knitting and sewing for fun, enjoyment, relaxation?

Those things aren't wrong...and they are.

I don't know.

And the Internet - oh, the Internet! Blessing and community and knowledge and ignorance was bliss. I am overwhelmed by life in a global society. The needs. The worldwide, endless, heartbreaking needs! I can care for those in my community, the needs I can see and hear and touch, but the needs of an entire world leave me paralyzed. I want to help them all and I don't know where to start and my frozen indecision means that I help none of them. Money sent randomly here and there feels like so little, not enough at all, just a tiny bandage in a world groaning under the weight of all those needs. It's not enough! What do I do?

I try to turn away from the endless onslaught of give give give online and focus instead on a more local community - and again I find myself paralyzed. Oh yes, just move myself out of the suburbs and into a community of true need downtown, but I have two children and I am torn between safety for them and caring for others. Just serve then, but where? And how? And who? So many different needs, so many different services...

What should I be doing here? I have my comfortable first-world life in the suburbs, but what good is it? My children, yes, are my first ministry, but what about serving the poor, helping the orphans and widows, mercy, justice, all the rest? How do I live that out in a practical sense from where I am? I help where I can, with money, time, and donations, with love and encouragement, but it doesn't change the fact that each night I go to sleep in my cozy suburban bubble, safe from the gritty reality of those who have no home to speak of.

I know I can't save the world. I know that from whom much is given, much will be demanded. But I also know more than ever how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. We call ourselves blessed here and I want to believe it, enjoy it, appreciate it, but instead I just feel burdened by it. How can I say God has blessed me here with all of this, as though I have been graced with special favour above the mother crying out to God as her child starves in her arms?

What do I do with this first-world life?


  1. First let me say that this is such a big part of my thought life!
    I think realizing that our riches will not save anyone, least of all us, is an important place to start. We buy fair trade if it's available, used if it's not, or find a different alternative we can make ourselves...and yet...oppression is built into our life at every level. It's hard to walk out of your front door without touching something that someone was oppressed to produce. Does that mean we as Christians are to stay in our houses to avoid hurting anyone?? That is a crippling lie from the pit.
    If we are doing the thing that God requires of us ("the thing that lies next to us") our conscience will not trouble us so about all the things we are not doing. Because we will do something about those things when God tells us to and we listen. It is pride to think that the starving children in Africa or India are all because of me, or that I have the power to save them, though it would be a very ugly spirit indeed that could feel quite comfortable with the knowledge of such suffering. I think the times when I feel the most despair are when I know there is something I need to change but I haven't figured out what or how yet.
    Sorry for this blog post of a comment...maybe I should have just posted it to my own blog...but as I mentioned this issue is close to my heart.

  2. "How can I say God has blessed me here with all of this, as though I have been graced with special favour above the mother crying out to God as her child starves in her arms?"

    Yes. This is such a struggle for me as well.

  3. This is exactly where I'm at at the moment, half a world away in a suburb in Ireland. So you're not alone. My first-world guilt is compounded by the sense of impotence and that is compounded by a kind of self hatred that I *think* about all this stuff but do I *do* anything? Very little.
    But perhaps the thing is to be open, to not shut your eyes, to listen to the Spirit and don't run and hide. And to make new choices that reflect our new awareness. For instance I try to avoid buying clothes that are not fairly traded. I will buy Irish where I can and fair trade whereever possible. It is now no longer viable for me to drink coffee that is not fairly traded. It might sound like too little, and white priveleged middle class whingeing but it's an awakening. The trick is not to go back to sleep.....

  4. It does feel awful to have so much when others have so little, but I don't think the solution is for everyone to suffer through hunger and insecurity so that life is more fair. It's ok to enjoy your life.

    If you feel called to help others there are many opportunities to do so. Volunteer for the Food Bank, donate money to charities serving in Africa, knit up woolly hats and and give them out to homeless people. I knew a friend who would buy lots of take-away meals one night around thanksgiving and then hand them out to people on the street downtown. There are so many different ways to give help.

    You don't need to give up your secure, clean, beautiful home in the suburbs in order to help others. Give help joyfully instead of from a feeling of guilt or shame - when you are happy there is more joy to give to others.

  5. "If you are a Christian ministry is just an accident of being alive."
    - Rich Mullins

    Don't forget God CHOSE to have you born in the first world. He CHOSE for you to have a financially secure life. He CHOSE for you to have access to nice things and a culture that values them. I do mission work in Uganda but right now I am finishing school here so i've been through all of this but at the end of the day we are to be where God has called us. So just be a Christian in your everyday. Love those you come across, pray for the suffering, financially give. And if God calls you to be directly involved in some kind of ministry listen, but don't feel that where you are in life is not enough- because you are exactly where he has lead you.

  6. Kate, I think you put your finger on it exactly: "I think the times when I feel the most despair are when I know there is something I need to change but I haven't figured out what or how yet." Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Young Mom, it is comforting to know I am not the only one struggling with that.

    Miz Melly, yes, acknowledge and then act. That really does sum it up, doesn't it?

    Michelle, those are some great practical ideas. I do most of those and yet somehow the discrepancy still seems too big to be acceptable or even sustainable. Giving out of joy instead of guilt is such a good reminder. I appreciate your perspective.

    Megan, thank you for those wise words. "Bloom where you are planted", right? The idea that God has chosen this for me is hard to swallow, though, as it means conversely that He has chosen something far different for others. It's unfathomable.

  7. I understand these feelings so much. Part of my reason for getting into healthcare was because I wanted so badly to go to third world nations and help. When I got pregnant with Kalilah I knew it'd be awhile before I got to do this.

    I just try to give when I can, and I try not to feel guilty when I see things like the children in Somalia. In my heart, I'd like to jump on a plan with as many bags of rice and beans as I could and feed these hungry people. In reality I realize trying to help in the awareness of what is going on because right now that is all I can do.

    I just remember I can't solve the worlds problems, but I can help one person at a time and that does make a difference.

  8. YES YES YES - thank you for writing this all down. They're my thoughts too. I've finally decided to start helping somewhere (specifically, a food bank a few miles away), and if it's not the right place, God will use it to point me to the right place.