The Luxury (or Shackles) of Choice – OR – When Two Worlds Collide

Choices. To me, it seems that some people’s lives can actually be complicated by options. What initially seems a luxury – like getting to select something from a variety of options – can actually become a burden. When I think about something as ‘simple’ as buying coffee at Starbucks and having to choose from four walls of options. Or those book-style menus at restaurants…and forget about clothes…

What’s the opposite of options? 

What does it feel like to have limits on choices? Or even no choice? Does a kind of reality exist where there are few or even no options? Does that result in a person being more content? Does lack of choice lead to an acceptance of a current state? Are there people existing in a reality of life where an alternative isn’t possible? If one doesn’t know any different than the life they’ve been dealt, do they just deal? Cope? Exist? Survive?

These thoughts have taken over as I struggle to get to know the locals – the “Beninois.” I ask lots of questions and want so badly to truly understand the people I meet on a deeper level – to comprehend what they’re feeling – to do my best to experience a small piece of their world, a glimpse of their innermost thoughts. I subscribe to the theory that to get to know someone is to know their passions – what drives them. I ask through loads of questions about family, home, job, food, past, present, future. I ask and ask and ask.

I’m embarrassed to say that in my search for a more personal connection in an unfamiliar environment with a culture I’m so far from understanding, I’ve posed questions like this: “So, what do you like/dislike?” “What is your favorite _____?” “What are your hobbies?” “What do you do in your spare time?” “What made you decide to do _____ for a living?” “Do you have any pets?”

It’s through my lack of understanding that I’ve started to realize (remembering I’ve only been here a short time so I don’t claim to know much as of yet), my approach isn’t working. I’m searching for answers to concepts that don’t seem to apply or even exist. The responses tell me so, with long pauses and confused facial expressions adding emphasis. I’ve come to see the term “favorite” as a word that only those with choices and extras have. There isn’t “free time” – there don’t seem to be “hobbies.” And pets? No, there aren’t pets. It’s a different world I’m in – one that I can barely relate to sometimes, no matter how hard I try. The people I’m meeting are dealing, coping, existing and surviving.

But they’re also living; just a different “living” than I’m used to.

I recently visited the home of a former patient who we’d spent a lot of time with. But I wasn’t expecting to see living conditions like what we pulled up to. I was stuck in a thick fog of confusion while we set up to film the interviews. A small child peed on the ground near where we stood, a dirt pathway connecting tin-roof structures. Where do they sleep? Where do they get water? Where’s the toilet? 

They squeezed all ten of us into the main part of their home – an 8 x 8 ft mud structure with a cement floor, two small foot stools, a few mats and a rusty tin roof. I felt like shock was oozing out of me and I wanted so badly to keep it from spilling out. I tried to hide my struggle of absorbing the reality in front of. I wanted this family to know that I appreciated their hospitality and tried my best to go with the flow. I blew up balloons, handed out bubbles and put stickers on the kids. We conducted our interview, grabbed photos, exchanged goodbyes and left. 

Here are some photos of our time there (by Miguel Ottaviano):

On another occasion, I spent time with a 63 year-old man with severe cataracts. His couldn’t see or walk. He received a vaccination at a very young age that crippled him for life. He had never been to school. He couldn’t read. He had no wife or children. His brother said quite simply, “Who would want him?” – not in a mean way, but as a basic fact.

I talked with him while he waited to be seen by a doctor. He sat across from me, staring ahead. Through two translators (English to Fon, Fon to Haussa) I asked him lots of questions as I tried to get to know him, wanting him to feel comfortable with me and our dialogue. I even took a stab with my silly humor, an especially tough challenge with the language barriers. But I got him to smile, even if was at my weirdness. (“Crazy yovo” he was probably thinking – “yovo” being Beninese slang for white person.) Still, by the end of our chat, what I had learned about this man wasn’t much. While his brother arranged their transportation to head home, I sat and held his hand. It was my first time feeling like we connected even though no words were spoken. It was as though we had a silent conversation through that one, simple touch.

Photo by Miguel Ottaviano

I consider the lines of moms, dads and kids waiting to be seen by our doctors. They don’t bring much (if anything) to pass the time. Some have little nokia phones for making calls, but that’s about it. Most just sit. Some sleep. Some moms nurse their babies. A few chat, but for the most part, everyone just waits. Quietly. Calmly.

Photo by Justine Forrest

What are they thinking about? Are they praying? Are they taking a pause from the life they’re accustomed to and observing what’s going on around them? I’ve even asked the question, “What do you do to pass the time while you wait?” but I think it comes across as a strange question from an even stranger stranger. 

I can barely imagine going somewhere without something to do. Whether it’s music playing for a long drive, or my iphone always in hand, a book, social media, game, email, Netflix, amazon – I’ve always got my apps, sounds and pictures to entertain me. Constant seeking to see, planning to do, things get, lists to write, news to read, posts to like. Choices galore. And I can’t stop. I can’t possibly just sit.

After all this processing of information, I heard this remark from two different friends:

“And we think WE have all the answers? We’re all broken, struggling, in one way or another.”

I’m sensing that folks like me from nations like the U.S. have a lot of extreme conditions and severe deformities just like the people I’m meeting in Benin – but ours are on the inside. The kind of life that’s privileged with choice and opportunity yet bombarded by stimulation makes it very difficult to see things clearly and purely. In this kind of life, one becomes bound by stuff, disabled by options and shackled by the notion that life is so very, very good when full and maxed out.

In the midst of trying to make sense it all, coats are being bought for my two dogs back at my home in NY. Reconciling the differences between the two worlds I’m living in hurts my brain. (And I’m not saying dog coats are bad. They’re great. But you get what I’m saying, right?)

So what do I do? I’ve gotta find a way to dig deeper. I think it might just have to come more naturally in time. Not time passing, but time being. Connecting. Listening. Observing. Learning. Erasing the habits of my hardwired former self and resetting to understand the new normal around me.

Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit [through factional motives, or strife], but with [an attitude of] humility [being neither arrogant nor self-righteous], regard others as more important than yourselves.”

I pray that I can remove the tendency to think I know better or that my ways are the right ways and instead learn from those I’m privileged to meet and regard them as more highly than myself. If you agree that this is a good idea wherever you are too, then let’s pray it for each other.

The choices we have are a gift, but they can also be a hindrance. With all that freedom comes a lot of responsibility and a need for even more self-control and wisdom in decision making. We have to choose wisely.

Luke 12:48b says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” (NIV) Or, in the Message translation, “Great gifts mean great responsibilities; greater gifts, greater responsibilities!” Let’s encourage each other to do great things with what we have, remembering that we don’t have all the answers, and there’s much to learn from the world around us.

Check out the momma in this picture – thinking back to the visit, I can’t remember what was so funny, but seeing her laughing makes me so happy. She’s a good mother. She takes good care of her family. And despite tough circumstances, she still has her joy.

There’s just so much to learn.

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