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Guilt + Gratitude

There's something I've been wrestling with for awhile now, I still don’t exactly know how to feel about it— and I wonder if I ever will. I'm hoping to describe the tension of guilt and gratitude that I've felt while living overseas.

If this post seems a little incomplete or incoherent, that’s because it’s also true of my brain and heart on the matter. But I think it’s important to share; I guess the best place to start is the beginning.

My Past

Growing up, we had things by association. I lived in a (two parent) single income home in which that one parent was self employed. Our extended family had wealth that we benefited from. We had a large home, cool things, and a ton of land. At the same time we lived paycheck to paycheck and sometimes worried if we would be able to afford groceries. Back to school shopping was always tense. On the outside people thought I had money because of my last name but in reality we had just enough. I wasn’t “poor” but we lived frugally.

When my family split in High School my stay at home mom was forced to get a job (or a few) to keep our family afloat. So to no fault of her own, I was starting from scratch when it came to College. I completed my four years (+ 3 months) by the grace of God alone (and not without a little student debt).

All that being said, God faithfully and continuously provided for my needs, but I haven’t really felt comfortable with “having” as it wasn’t very familiar to me during my adult life. Everyone is in a different place and some people dream to have what I did and others feel pity for what I lacked. I’m not trying to sound ungrateful at all. I always had enough.

I feel so thankful the Lord has blessed us with a nice house here in Papua New Guinea with plenty of room, decor and supplies left by the previous homeowners, and running warm water (most of the time). But, somewhere (not so) deep down, I also feel guilty to have these things because of where I came from and the places I’ve been blessed to have visited.

Our Home

We don’t live in a hut, which I feel is what most people expect, so sometimes I feel bad about owning a house.

When we got married we were given an inheritance and gifts from family & extended family and we saved that money and set a budget for an affordable home here in PNG. When we saw this home for sale it was in our set budget and thankfully we were able to purchase it with these savings and not through our ministry budget given by partners.

I love our home and am so very thankful God provided us with the means to purchase a house which we can grow into over time. I would have never in my life imagined having the means to own a house this size. It’s not really the kind of house you have in the states though sometimes photos may fool you. The best comparison is an old farmhouse. We don’t have central AC or Heat and we have to make sure to double check that our food is sealed and not leave any out so as not to encourage critter visitors.

——-but we have beautiful weather year round and the louvered windows make for amazing airflow in the afternoons.

We have a bucket in the shower for when it hasn’t stayed sunny enough to warm our water and we have a hot water booster switch if we really need it (it can be pricy). The fluctuation in water pressure often makes the shower switch between scalding and frigid; finding the middle ground is a skill I have only recently acquired. If it doesn’t rain our tanks empty and we have to use water pumped straight from the river for our needs (thankfully we haven’t experienced this yet).

——-but we have hot and running water.

We can’t safely consume water straight out of the faucets, so we keep refilling a water bottle in the bathroom with filtered water for teeth brushing and we do our best not to swallow shower water.

——-but we were gifted a nice filter so we don’t have to filter water a bag at a time for daily use.

We have nice decor and some fancy appliances in our home, and a Christmas tree!

——-but hardly anything was mine to begin with—it came with the house. (Praise God!)

We also have a clothes dryer. Most people I know in the United States have a clothes dryer or access to one nearby. I know there are exceptions but it’s pretty expected that most people can get to a dryer pretty easily. Here, I almost feel guilty to mention it because most people, even my missionary friends, have to play guesswork to avoid the rain while hanging out their clothes to dry. We didn’t pay extra money for or choose to have a dryer put in our home—it came with the house. Even still, I sometimes feel bad. I try to make up for it by being sure to offer its services when others are struggling to keep clothes dry during rainy days.

The Store

We have a store within walking distance, full of good things, but it’s closed outside of work hours and on weekends. Also, it’s closed for two weeks while they take stock and again during the Christmas Break. While we have access to most things we need, store visits do require a little planning.

It took me a month to find cinnamon (but now it’s stocked in the store), we didn’t have canned goods for a month and a half, and I’m learning common substitutes for some “normal ingredients”. I laughed at myself when I felt excited to see already-made tortillas on the store shelves.

We usually don’t come close to filling our cart during any given trip to the store, but it can stir some emotions when a Papua New Guinean rings up your pricier groceries that could certainly be considered a luxury—Cream Cheese for instance. Sometimes while shopping I notice I’m a bit stressed because I feel bad for buying “so many” groceries and try to be really aware of what we spend. But with the store closed so often I want to be sure to have some reserves in the pantry so that if we forget to plan we can still throw together something.

I want to go on a small tangent for a minute:

Have you ever talked with a missionary about vacation?

I was chatting with some friends in our community recently and it seemed to be a consensus that it’s pretty tricky communicating vacations to people back home. And one of the big questions is "can/should/do I post pictures, or no?" I could probably write an entire post just on this topic.

When the money that we have is provided through faithful and generous partners we tend to be more aware of how we spend every penny. While there’s more accountability, there’s also a lot more transparency in how we spend our money. Which is both good and hard.

We don’t live above our means and so much of what we have is a gift. Just like anyone else works very hard at their job and occasionally needs a break to step away, missionaries also work hard at a job and need a break in order to remain sustainable on the field. As much as we enjoy our time visiting our home countries on "home assignment" (formerly known as furlough), it isn’t a vacation. Occasionally opportunities for vacations arise.

We have a strong desire to be respectful and good stewards of money, especially when we have individuals investing in our work here. We are humans and need breaks—but we really care what you think.

Part of what makes it difficult is that there are some common misconceptions, here are a few insights:

Our location- We are on an island in the Pacific, close to Australia, New Zealand, and many other “exotic” places or islands and a drive or flight from here to there is a fraction of the cost from the US or even to get back to the US. We can get to these places and take a weeklong vacation for what it may cost those back home to simply buy plane tickets.

Gifts- Often vacations are given as a gift, making it hard to explain where the funds came from. I’ve been in the tough position where we were hesitant to share our experience because we didn’t want our partners to assume we spent money they gave to travel to a “fancy” place, but we also didn’t want to expose the discrete generosity of a friend who paid our way.

Cost of Living- Cost of living here can be lower, making it easier to set aside money when we foresee an opportunity approaching. We are allocating the funds given to us towards the things we need, but we can also go without meat for a week and save enough to take a weekend trip to the coast.

Why it’s good

When I ask myself why I’m okay with living in a house with warm running water, appliances, and a dryer while the communities we are serving have so much less, the place I come to is this:

If I had to hand wash all my clothes and hang them to dry, bathe in the river when it was warm from the sun, use the bathroom in a hole in the ground, and grow, pick, and prepare our own food from scratch our lifestyle itself would be my job and we would struggle to keep up with our jobs, stay healthy, and stay sustainable here on the field.

In March, we were blessed to be able to experience the village lifestyle I just described. And I really enjoyed it. But I also really enjoyed coming home to my bed at the end of it. It was a beautifully humbling experience, but I consistently have to remind myself that it's about longevity and that I'll be better at my job here because my home here carries some of the conveniences and comforts of our home in the US.

This isn’t the “right” answer, but it’s where I’ve landed for now.

Both sides/in the middle

I’ve lived in affluent communities filled with people who would pity my current living conditions and I currently live surrounded by people who bathe in rivers and do laundry and drink from that same river. We fall somewhere in the middle and I don’t know how to feel about it—so right now I’m working to balance the guilt and gratitude.

I’ve lived short term (5-7 weeks) in places where I’ve taken cold showers, I’ve slept on thin mattresses in concrete rooms in the middle of the jungle, I’ve had to wash my clothes by hand, woken up to hand-sized bugs in my bed, I’ve had to pay to use a flushing toilet, I’ve been unable to drink water that wasn’t bottled, I’ve been in countries where I wasn’t able to flush toilet paper, and I’ve stayed a few weeks in a country where I didn’t know a single word of the language….and you know what? I did it, I can do it. But I don’t have to and for that I can choose to feel thankful instead of feeling bad or ashamed.

I don’t want to complain about the new challenges about my lifestyle—because I chose it and enjoy it. I wonder if we will always feel a little stuck in the middle. I realize I don’t have it as rough as missionaries who are allocated in villages or nationals who do have rougher living conditions. But I also want people from the outside to see the reality of some of these things and not just the exotic exciting parts or our relatively nice/normal looking home and assume we are living it up in an underdeveloped country.

Things are different here and life takes more thought and intentionality—it can be challenging and tiring. But also, “I have”. I can’t change that—no matter what I give up or how I choose to live in this country I will always be considered wealthy because of where I’m from (often determined by the look of my skin). And honestly, I am wealthy in all the ways that matter; I have my daily needs met, an education, and an eternal hope because of Christ. I can't deny my wealth, regardless of how many physical things I give up or obtain. This tension, I’ve heard, is common among missionaries so I assume it will not go away quickly.

My hope is that this post helps you see a little more clearly where our hearts are. When I post a video or blog with photos of our home, please don’t take it as boasting in anything other than the Lord who provides. And when we mention or show glimpses of a vacation that looks exotic, please know we are so thankful for the break. For every photo that illuminates difficulty, know there are beauties that photos can't capture. And for every photo of beautiful and exciting moments there are unseen aspects that are hard.

And for all of this, I'm still learning how to balance the guilt & gratitude.


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