Monday, June 25, 2007

Deprivation ain't all bad

I had a long conversation with my mom the other day about her childhood. She grew up in rural Croatia in the 50s and 60s, in a small village by the Adriatic sea. I love talking with her about it because it's like something out of a book, complete with drawing water from a well, cooking on a wood burning stovetop, milking goats, and walking to school on a single pair of shoes. My mother and her family didn't starve, but they didn't quite have enough, either. She went to school, her father had work and she lived in a solidly built house. They even had meat, though not a great deal of it. But they were poor, especially in comparison to my typical American lifestyle.

What struck me most in talking with her was how little she really needed. Of course she could have had more, and wanted more. She would have loved six Barbie dolls to play with and a trunk full of clothes to dress them in. I'm sure her brother would have treasured a remote-controlled car that made vrooming noises and popped a wheelie if you spun the joystick backwards. But she never remembers being bored as a child. She played with the other children in the village, explored the mountains, waded in the sea and helped out around the house and in the fields.

Treats for my mom included sharing a soft boiled egg with her mother and brother. An orange in winter. Fresh blood sausages cooked over hot coals when they slaughtered the Christmas pig. Fresh fish if someone caught some.

You'd expect that she would look back on this life from the perspective of her current comfortable existence and cringe. "Thank the Lord I got out of there!" or something similar. She feels nothing of the kind. Obviously, now that she's able to, she buys meat several times a week and cooks varied, healthy meals for her family. She buys new clothes when she wants them and goes out to eat with her friends. But she doesn't consider herself damaged from having to "endure" her childhood. Her general feeling seemed to be that life was what it was. There were hardships and everything required work. Sometimes she was cold. Sometimes she was hot. Sometimes she was hungry.

Well, that's life.

What an alien way to look at things! What a beautiful perspective. Life does not owe me constant comfort and the immediate satisfaction of every desire. That's not life. Life is taking happiness from small moments and cherishing the good times when they come, holding your head up in the bad times, and thanking God for it all. It's no surprise that the more society attempts to pursue pleasure, comfort and excess, the less satisfied we are with what we have.

I contrast my mom's childhood with my life right now, and I am struck by how little I have to complain about. Laundry, for me, is a ten minute process. We have access to fresh vegetables every day of the year. The dishwasher washes my dinner plates for me. I sleep in a really comfortable bed (pillow topped mattress and all.) My children have their own rooms and many stimulating toys and books.

Yet do you know what's consuming my mind right now? The fact that we don't have air conditioning. Our home is sound, roomy and comfortable with windows on every side and soft carpeting underfoot. We have a view of the mountains. Yet there's no A/C, and it's 97 degrees today.

I could use a bit of my mom's attitude right now. After all, I'm fine. I'm not exactly comfortable, but upstairs the windows are open and the fans are on, so I'm pretty sure I'll be able to sleep tonight. We have plenty of water, so I don't need to worry about dehydration. There's plenty of shade, ice in the freezer, and very little humidity. Things could be much, much worse.

It's okay sometimes for life to be a little bit hard. I feel a kinship with my mother now, and with the millions of people throughout the world who are hot in summer and cold in winter. It's a little thing, and perhaps a silly one, but it turns my mind from myself. I think that's reason enough to suffer a little bit right there.


Jennifer F. said...

Another amazing post. Such a good point.

It reminds me of something I read this weekend by P.J. O'Rourke. He said that when his daughter protests that "That's not fair!", he points out that it's not fair that she was born to rich parents, that she's pretty, that she has excellent health, plenty of food, etc. He tells her she'd better pray that life doesn't start getting fair any time soon.

I see this a lot in myself. When I'm having bad days I fall into a sort of "this isn't fair!" O'Rourke's little girl, I'd be in biiiiig trouble if my life suddenly got anything close to fair.

Anyway, thanks for yet another great post.

qualcosa di bello said...

Tienne, i come to you via Jen's link (Et Tu), and i am so glad to visit. this post is truly a beautiful one..."drawing water from a well, cooking on a wood burning stovetop, milking goats, and walking to school on a single pair of shoes"...the simplicity & the ordinariness of it can fill one with such a longing. i often struggle with the Gospel message of "sell all you have, give to the poor & follow me." abundance of material things & choices are not always a comfort. my daddy's stories of his Depression-era childhood here in the US were told with delight - he was happy and cared for - they had enough. i often felt as if he was frustrated by his later life of surplus. thank you for a thought-provoking post.

Tienne said...

Qualcosa -

I think your dad's experience mirrors my mom's. She's certainly not happier now than she was as a child, despite how much more comfortable her life is. Good to know you enjoyed the post!

Tienne said...


What a brilliant comeback! I'm totally going to use that twist on "life isn't fair" with my kids when they get older!

Kristen said...

Reminds me of Pope Benedict XVI...“The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”

Senia said...

Hi Tienne,

I just read this post! I came to your blog via Jen's link too. I'm a grad student in the USA, but I was born and grew up in Croatia in the small town on the coast. Where is your mother from exactly?

Tienne said...

Hi Senia! She's from Brijesta, in Peljesac just west of Dubrovnik. What are you studying at university?

Senia said...

I'm studying physics at Rutgers University. Did you ever visit Croatia?