Why do some people thrive even when life dumps them a horrendous pile, while others just flounder? Why? What makes the magical difference?
I honestly don’t know. And yet, it’s hard not to ask the question when you’re face to face with men and women who are literally making shit shine. In circumstances beyond anything we can imagine, they’ve taken what’s right in front of them and scrubbed it up holy. And that takes the breath right out of you, hard.
I’m in Bali for work – I know, it’s tough to say that with a straight face – and we’ve found our way to a community in the northern mountains. It’s much cooler up here. Bintang singlet-wearing Aussies are more exotic, but local people are still under the boot of the tourist dollar. Everything in Bali these days is more expensive than it should be for those who’ve worked this land for centuries. Poverty has the place firmly in its fangs – you won’t see outright starving children, but an unrelenting diet of two meals a day (rice/one vegetable) serves up about as much hope as it does nutrition.
That said, it’s painfully ridiculous to have at least a year’s worth of meals, medical supplies and school fees casually kicking around between us in the form of a couple of Canons and three MacBook Airs. We’re here to talk to the people of this community about the way some pretty basic training – how to breed goats and improve their manure for fertiliser to sell to local coffee farmers – is changing life for the better. We’ll interview, film, sit with the kids, eat a feast cooked from meagre stores, mime our clumsy way through conversations that magically, for a few short hours, feel like real relationships.
Then we’ll take our shots and our muddled, messed-up hearts back to Australia to let people know that poverty among our close neighbours (‘I’ve been to Bali too!’) has a name and a face. And it needs some love, so please guys, please: give some of your money. Believe me it will do more good than anything you can dream up owning here in suburbia.
But amidst all that, watching this family ankle deep in shit and still smiling, frying us batch after batch of cassava they can’t afford, I’m still wondering: these people aren’t noble savages. It’s not like they ‘don’t know what they’re missing out on.’ Worldwide, even the poorest people have mobile phones and access to the ‘net. As a global community, we’re in each other’s faces like never before.
When I ask him about it, Wayan smiles ruefully. He knows. He knows about our Netflix and our cheeky coffees and maybe even how much we spend on a pair of shoes. So ignorance might have once been bliss, but it isn’t anymore. It’s a hot wound, searing as hunger.
“We are just thinking about our children,” he tells me. “This – what we are doing now – this will make life better for them in the future. They will have a much better life than us.”
In other words, he’s focussing on what he can control. It might not be a lot, but it’s something. He can bend those arms to slashing vegetation day after day keeping those goats alive and kicking; improve the quality of the fertiliser they’re producing; faithfully fulfil his leadership role within the community, encouraging others. And he can hold his baby daughter in his arms, as he does today, presenting her both to our visiting team of health workers and to the Hindu gods he worships.
The self-help gurus say that overcoming adversity is about knowing what you can control and what you can’t. Read this handy but slightly wordy blog about segmenting out your worries into spheres of concern (things you can’t control) and spheres of influence (things you can). Those who do this successfully will thrive, because the locus of control is in our hands. There is literally no point worrying about what we can’t change.
Simple, right? Maybe. Except what about that circle of concern, just sitting there festering away? How do you just dump it? For five out of six billion people around the world who nourish their souls from one religion or another, perhaps there’s solace in the idea that Someone Else can take care of the worries that are beyond your control. For the rest, it’s all down to us. On the one hand, it’s no wonder anxiety is rife. That’s potentially terrifying.
On the other, I’m honestly not a fan of the idea that Cosmic Dad will take care of it. For me, the best of my faith is summed up in two ideas: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” – a Roosevelt quote I’m pretty sure is ripped off from the longer version from John Wesley. Spheres of influence and shoulder to the wheel. No matter what life has dealt us, there is grace to be found and the sun rises on one more new day.
But don’t do it alone. Love, in its purest form, is about others. It leads to the second idea I’ve held close since Hughie died: “Love is stronger than death.” Read it into the biblical stories of Jesus’ life and death; read it into the way the seasons turn and autumn blows itself out in the most glorious, defiant display before winter’s death and spring’s rebirth. Read it in the faces of those families as they hang on to one another and love and life itself. Ultimately, love wins. Get lost in that – and for others more than yourself. Gosh, there is nothing like the perspective that comes from letting your life really knock up against someone else’s!
I’m still not sure why some swim and others sink. Maybe it’s not so much magical as making choices with your mind. And maybe, for some, sinking simply isn’t an option. Keen to hear your thoughts.
I was in Bali with UnitingWorld to write about the projects run by our partners there, the Bali Christian Church. As usual I came home wired-up, lost and found and all things in between. This isn’t a work blog because it has the word shit in it. But feel free to give us money anyway, and please do check out this awesome video we made because it has my mum and niece in it. And because it tells this story beautifully 🙂
Images: Market Lane Media