Things I need: water, food, an iPad, etc.

There are some things in life that seem to constantly elude us.   They may not elude all of us all of the time but they certainly can have a slippery aspect to them and make each hard to grab at different points in our lives.  Things like: Love, money, patience, employment, friends, good hair days, “luck” (if you believe in that), good looks, fresh breath, trust, time, health, children, sleep, approval, etc.

We all know at least one person who is missing one (or more) of these treasured items.   In fact, if we are honest, we may be missing a few of these ourselves.  As hard as we try, we are still impatient.  As much as we search, we can’t find love.  No matter how many jobs we get – we can’t make enough money.  Make up or make-overs can’t ultimately change our looks.  Some people have bad breath and swallowing a gallon of Listerine can’t change it.  Past betrayal may make future trust seem impossible.   Why is it so hard to lose that final 10 lbs or get rid of that chronic ache?  It can get frustrating when the one thing (or the six things) you want just never end up in your grasp.

We are born discontented.  We come out of the womb crying and unhappy.  To the infant, there is no difference between “want” and “need.”  They want milk because they need milk.  They want to be held because they need to be held.  Want and need feels the same to a baby.   As we mature, we understand the difference between “want” and “need”.   Intellectually, we know that we NEED food but we WANT an iPad.   ipadHowever, though we understand this difference intellectually, we do not necessarily articulate this difference verbally.   Our words betray our misunderstanding when we find ourselves saying things like, “I NEED an iPad.” Granted, we don’t really NEED an iPad but the fact that we say that we do blurs the line and creates the feeling of discontent.  We create the same confusion when we say things like, “I’m starving.”  Yes, we need food to survive but that sentence is never said out of need, but want.   Most Americans don’t know what it means to actually starve.   Hunger pains are not the same as starvation.  No one ever died from missing one meal.  We allow our “wants” to fool us into thinking they are actually “needs” and when we do not receive the perceived want, we become discontented and the chase is on.

As adults, it doesn’t seem to matter what we put in our mouths – our appetite continues.  We are constantly chasing something.  A rich man has money but maybe lacks a relationship with his children.  A poor man can obtain love but not pay his electric bill.  A woman can have beauty but still lack security while an elderly man can have wisdom but lack health.  One couple wants one baby while another couple wants two more.  We all want more time.  Our pockets feel perpetually empty even when they are filled.  It seems that there is always something else we want.  There is always something out there that we think will make our life more complete.  If I could just have ____________ (fill in the blank), THEN I would be truly happy.   Truly satisfied.  Isn’t that how we feel most of the time?  Isn’t that why marketing companies and TV commercials and radio advertisements are so effective?   Every company recognizes that you are missing SOMETHING and their product or service will help you get it.

Methods change but human nature does not.  Our wants and needs in the past are still our wants and needs today.  What Adam searched for outside the Garden, we still search for with our Garmin.  Eve’s longings yesterday are still Eve’s longings today.  Today, most people tie their happiness to their circumstances.  If life is going the way they want, they are happy.  If they are missing or lacking something, they are sad, depressed or consumed by what they are missing.   If happiness, joy and peace are only obtained by getting what we want, no wonder everyone seems to be depressed all the time.

I have had the privilege of traveling to several third world countries.   I have been to the jungles of Ecuador.  I have walked the poorest streets of the Dominican Republic.  I have seen the “garbage dump communities” in Guatemala City.  Even in America, I have spent time in several “ghettos” in some of our major cities.  Once I even spent the night in a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C.  I have been with the poorest of the poor and have witnessed abject poverty first hand.

Years ago I used to sponsor a child through an organization called Compassion International.  For $25 dollars a month, my donation would help a child from a poor village receive an education, give his family money for better clothes, better food, better opportunities.  The child I sponsored was a nine-year old boy named Elvis and Elvis lived in one of the poorest communities in the Dominican Republic.  For years, Elvis and I would send letters to each other (through Compassion’s translators) and talk about our families.  He would tell me about what he was learning in school and how my assistance was giving him an opportunity to change his life.

Through Compassion International, I arranged a visit with Elvis in the D.R..  After years of financial support and correspondence, I was finally going to meet my sponsored child – who was now 16.  I was not prepared for what I was about to see.  Though my support did give him opportunities that he would not have had access to otherwise, he was still living in a poor home in a poor village.  When I met his mother, she could not stop smiling.  You could tell, through the language barrier, that she was struggling to find a way to thank me for my contribution.  As I entered her home, she offered me a tall glass of something pink.  The glass was dirty.  I accepted the glass and faked a sip.  (We were instructed to drink nothing unless it was offered in a sealed container.)  As she gave me a tour of their tiny home, I realized I was in a hut.  The floors were dirt.  The walls were flimsy.  If the Big Bad Wolf was outside, I was surely his next meal.  The roof was made of soup cans.  Literally soup cans.  The cans were cut and flattened and placed like shingles on the roof.   Obviously, there was no insulation.   The entire 4 bedroom hut was the size of most American living rooms.  There were at least six people living there.   Honestly, it was difficult to be there.   Everywhere I looked I saw living conditions that were deplorable.  We wouldn’t let our pets stay where these people lived.  As I walked through their home, it was hard not to cry.  I held back tears as I saw where they slept.  I held back tears as I looked at their “kitchen.”.   I held back tears when I saw how happy they were – with virtually nothing.  On the wall of one of the bedrooms, were two pictures.  One was a framed cross-stitched image of a house.  It was not something any American would hang prominently in their home.  In fact, unless it was made by someone important to you, it would never be featured on any wall on any home in America.  This was her prized art.   It looked like something you would reject in the free pile of a yard sale and she had it hanging as a way to decorate her place.   Next to it was a picture of me.  ME!?  I had travelled 1500 miles from my home to find a picture of me on someone’s wall.  As I stared at her artwork, she took the framed cross-stitched house and offered it to me.

Are you kidding me???

I had more money in my pocket than she had in her life and she was going to give me her prized possession?   No way.  I couldn’t accept it.  And then I realized that her kind gesture had never happened to me before.  I had been in hundreds of American homes commenting on numerous items on people’s walls and no one, not one, had ever taken it off the wall to give to me.   By the same token, I have never offered any of my prized possessions to anyone either.   She had little and offered what she had freely.  By contrast, I have everything and refuse to part with any of it.   It was at that point, I realized just how poor I really was.   The one to be pitied was not her, but me.

The experience reminded me of an ancient letter I had read just a few days before my trip.  The letter, by the Apostle Paul, was written about 62 A.D. from a prison cell, most likely in Rome.   Prisons in Rome were not the humane housing they are today.   This cell would have been cold, dark, damp and dirty.  It was also subterranean, approximately twelve feet underground.  Prisoners, their guards, and their provisions were lowered through an opening the size of a manhole.  Iron shackles were fixed to the walls.  The only available light would be from a torch.   The Roman historian, Sallust, described the Roman prison as “disgusting and horrible, by reason of the filth, darkness and stench.”   It was in this environment that Paul penned the following words:

  • Do everything without grumbling or arguing…” (Philippians 2:14)
  •  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (4:6)
  • “…Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (4:8)
  • “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (11-13)

What is your life lacking?   What are you missing?  Probably a lot less than Paul’s at that time.   And yet he is encouraging others not to grumble or complain.  He reminds his friends to not be anxious about anything.  He challenges us all to pray.  Paul could have spent his time thinking about his deplorable conditions or his current life situation.  Instead, he chose to think about things that were noble, pure and lovely.  And in the midst of his dire situation, he admits he is content in any and every situation – even in prison.

Have you learned Paul’s secret yet?   I’m working on it.  And when I start thinking about all that I don’t have and sense discontentment creeping in, I am reminded of Paul and his letters and an old Indian proverb, “I cried when I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

I’m blessed.  Once again, I am content.  I truly have everything I need.

Except an Ipad.   Man, I need one of those badly.

“True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.” – G.K. Chesterton

“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’  – Dalai Lama

Parenting in the technological age

(This was originally published in Columbia Living – “The Premier Lifestyle Magazine of Columbia South Carolina”, July/August 2011)

With every generation, raising children takes on new challenges never before seen by parents. Think about how parenting has changed through the ages. Before the invention of the light bulb, kids were “in” by dark. Now, they can stay out late and see all night. Before the automobile was invented, children had to walk or take the family horse. Now, they are able to travel hundreds of miles in just a few hours. Before the invention of television, kids were outside all the time. Now, there are enough channels in the basic cable package to entertain them 24 hours a day, literally. Before the invention of the internet, kids had to go to the library for hours to do research. Today, with a few clicks from home and they can find what they want in minutes. It used to be that parents had to set a geographical boundary and curfew for their children to obey. In this day and age, those boundaries are primarily online. “Don’t go past that landmark” has now been replaced with “Don’t go to that website”.

Like it or not, we are in the Zenith of the technological age and it seems that parenting has to morph just as rapidly as the technologies that are created. Just in the last 15 years, parents have had to address the following technological bombardments: MP3’s, iPods, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, Nook, Kindle, instant messaging, web cams, cell phones, texting, Xbox, DVR, TiVo, etc. To an older ear, some of those terms can bring confusion. To an “old-timer”, YouTube can sound like your toothpaste. Isn’t Kindle something you do to a fire? Should the trend continue parents will have to address and adapt to even more technology in order to stay current and communicate with their children. So, how do you do it? How does a parent stay informed, connected and even communicate with their children in such an age?

  • Get educated. Listen to your children and you will learn a lot. They will talk about the latest technology, how they use it or how they want to use it. Ask questions. Get online and “google” to find answers. Go to the store and talk to the employees. Knowledge is power and too often parents are powerless simply because they don’t even know what they don’t know.
  • Get online. If your kids are on Facebook, you need a Facebook account. If your kids use Twitter, you need to have a Twitter account and “subscribe” to it. If your child plays Xbox, you need to at least be familiar with the game and how it’s played. If your child likes to text message, you need to learn how to do it. Nothing can distance a parent quicker than not understanding their child’s world. There is already a great chasm between a child and his “old man”. You being online and trying to interact with your child can help bridge that gap a bit. It does not mean you have to “like” everything your child “posts”. It does not mean you have to “tag” every photo your child is in. It just means you have to be “nearby” online. Isn’t that the heart of parenting anyway – being “near” your children? (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with the phrases “Twitter”, “subscribe”, “like”, “tag” and “posts” you are officially out of touch and need this article more than you realize.)
  • Do not over react. Remember, technology is not the problem. It’s the use or abuse of it that can be the problem. Just because you heard a story about some kid in some mid-western state that abused MySpace does not mean that your child will do the same. Just because other teenagers are “sexting” (sending naked pictures of themselves via text) does not mean yours is or will. When you hear stories of how technology is being abused, talk it through with your kids. Make sure they understand the pitfalls and realize the consequences are real when technology is abused. Just as you would warn them of the dangers of driving, you too need to make sure they understand the dangers online or with various technologies.
  • Do not be too trusting. While overreacting can be a problem, so can too much trust. Just because you have a “good” child, does not mean he/she cannot get in trouble with certain technology. Children, particularly teenagers, are still developing portions of their brain. The common sense and rational portions are still a work in progress. These factors combined with the influence of friends and the ease of access to technology can cause them to go down a road you never dreamed they would. Education will help you know what’s out there and what the dangers are. Knowing your child and maintaining an open, close relationship with them will help you keep access as to how they are handling emerging technology. If you are concerned that your child is doing some things online that are inappropriate or destructive, there are accountability websites and keystroke logging software available to help.
  • Know their friends. How well do you know their friends? Are they in your home often? Are you creating opportunities where you can interact with them? Are you placing yourself in proximity (even online) to see, hear or read what is going on in their world? Who do they email or text regularly? If you do not know their closest friends, you do not know who is influencing them, positively and negatively.
  • Communicate with other parents. You would be surprised what you can learn in this regard. All parents like to talk about their kids. Ask them questions. Share your struggles. You will not only realize you have similar parenting issues but some of them may have some good suggestions as to how they handle it.
  • Get passwords. This is a controversial suggestion but one that I firmly believe can make a huge difference in the protection of your child. Having a child’s password gives you access to their online world. If they argue about giving it to you, that’s probably a good indication they are probably doing or saying something they shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean you have to read their mail, but if you wanted to – you could. Some would be quick to say, “Isn’t that an invasion of their privacy?” If you are financing any aspect of their life, you have the right to see what they are involved in. Obtaining an online password is just like doing a random drug test. Privacy is an earned freedom after a proven track record of wise behavior. The more responsible your child is and proves to be, the more freedoms he/she should be given.
  • Be yourself. You will never be as “cool” as your kids. The only way you will be “hip” again is when you get yours replaced. Don’t try to be their “BFF”, just be their parent who cares enough to try and engage them on their turf. Don’t comment on every picture they post or “like” every status update. Don’t respond to every Tweet or try to get in on every chat. Be yourself. After all, you are the only parent they have. Do not trade down your elite position by trying to be their friend. They have enough of those.
  • Get outside. Remember when we were kids we had things like trees, parks, museums, sporting events, zoos, books and sunshine? Oh wait, we still have those things. Though technology is playing an ever increasing role in our world, it is important that we still find ways to get our children offline, outside and being active. They might not be interested or good at sports but it is important that you encourage activities that don’t require a broadband internet connection. Wii sports is great but it’s not the same as being outdoors.

My teenage son (like most) enjoys playing Xbox. So, I created an account and now play with him when I can. The truth is, I stink. I lose every race and get killed first in every game we play. Unfortunately for me, this will never change. Fortunately, what my son will remember is that I tried and that we are spending time together. Would I rather throw a Frisbee with him? Yes. But the point is we are “together” and as a dear friend has reminded me over the years, “Together is better”. Last week, I received a text message from my 12 year old daughter asking me for a drink. She sent it from the living room, twenty feet from the fridge. I sent her a picture of Orange Juice. My daughter learned that there is still a benefit to face to face interaction with her Dad.