Thursday, January 31, 2013


There are moments in life when someone says one line -- one line that completely realigns your thinking. So potent and flawless in its simplicity, the line comes to you as if spoken by God.

A few years ago, my babysitter came to watch the kids and brought her nephew along. He was new to California and his ability to communicate in English was surprising after just a few months of 10th grade.

Diego came to America in secrecy, his body stuffed into the hollowed-out space beneath the back seat of an old Toyota. Where he came from, wealth was a daily meal and a pair of shoes. His family worked most of his 15 years of life to gather the $4,000 border crossing fee. On the other side was his aunt, now a citizen. On the other side was a life with possibilities.

Don and I said good-night to the kids and told them to be good for Marcella. As we were leaving, Jack pulled on Don’s arm.

“Can we go to the movies tomorrow, Dad?” he pleaded.

“Maybe next weekend. We have a lot to do tomorrow.”

“Like what? Why can’t we go?”

“Because we have a lot to do around our house.”

“Can we go to the toy store then?”

“No. We need to work on the house.”

“I don’t want to work on the house! Geez! It’s so unfair! Come on, Dad!”

“I’m not going to say it again. The answer is no.”

“I’ll have nothing to do! It will be so boring!”

Jack stomped away, marinating in the injustice. Don shook his head and looked at Diego.

“I don’t know why he acts like that.”

There was a long pause.

Softly, Diego said, “It’s because he has everything.”

There it was. Plain and simple.

But the line spoke to me as a statement well beyond the interaction with Jack.

It’s because we have everything. It’s about our advantage and their adversity. It’s about their destitution and our discontent.

I felt ashamed. Here we are. Americans with our big SUVs and cluttered houses and overflowing refrigerators. Here we are with our addictions and anti-depressants. With our firm grip on our kids’ overscheduled lives. With our heads immersed in technology and our disconnected families.

We live in the land of everything and yet we often feel nothing. It begs the question: How have we lost our way?

The line has stayed with me all these years. “It’s because he has everything.” It’s the voice in my head that warns me not to spoil. It’s the underlying guilt I feel when I whine about traffic or rude people or hot summers – all packaged as really big deals. It’s the line that resets my compass toward gratitude and simplicity.

In the book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, author Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., writes: “When horticulturists want to prepare hothouse plants for replanting outdoors, they subject them to stress to strengthen them. Gently and progressively deprived of food and water and exposed to greater extremes of heat and cold than they’ve been accustomed to, the plants grow stronger root systems and thicker stems.”

Most of us haven’t been exposed to many extremes. To what degree have our lives been padded? And to what degree do we pad the lives of our children? How will they grow “stronger root systems” if we red carpet their way and break their every fall?

My babysitter shares her home with her husband, three children and extended family. Diego and the grandparents sleep on couches. Their home is full yet immaculate and their children are A students, Diego included. But what I have always marveled over is the way this family radiates pure joy and celebrates its togetherness.

They have so little, yet so much. They tune into one another instead of Ipods or cell phones or computers. Front lawn tag is an almost nightly event in which everyone takes part. They work together to pool their resources, and they see America for all its glory and wonder and opportunity. Their struggle has given them a different lens. The little things in life – that we consider daily hardships -- aren’t even visible on their radar.

There is much to glean from people who have suffered. Maybe we can’t know how they feel or what they've been through, but we can learn from their example. We can pause, take a good look around and really see everything. And maybe in the process, we’ll remember that our land of plenty is a place and a state of mind never to be taken for granted again.

No comments: