“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” was penned by Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s. I believe it is as true today as it was then. The word itself is not commonly used today, in spite of evidence of its ubiquity. Like the parasites of the Amazon, desperation is typically unrecognized by its host and is no respecter of persons or culture. Its presence or absence is not an indicator of health, but how we respond to it reveals who we are and what we believe.
To the observer (me), desperation in the developing world seems more evident than in the “developed” world (the US, etc.) and the normal difficult life of those living in a third world setting is what has triggered this blog entry. This is not because there is more or less desperation in the people here, but rather, some of the means available in the States to either deal with the painful circumstances or to hide the true state of one’s heart are simply absent because of the financial state of the majority. The truth cannot be hidden by purchased distraction, increased activity, or by buying the latest technology or toy. Professional help is scarce and lack of education often causes one to fear that which is not harmful, but simply unknown.
One of my roles here has been that of a trusted advisor. Time and again, I’ve been able to relieve desperate anxiety in a health issue simply by addressing a perceived serious illness and advising that the condition is treatable and not life-threatening. I’ve made many house-calls to see children in a perceived crises and done little more than offer a simple remedy and reassurance. I think of one particular case in which I arrived to the home and held an infant experiencing a seizure. It was his second of the day, the first provoking the frantic call twenty minutes earlier. My simple reassurance, care, prayer and explanation allowed the baby’s mother to deal with what, for her, was a desperate moment. I encouraged her to trust God’s care. This is a physician’s role anywhere, but here, because of limited access to trusted healthcare providers, the value of this role seems greater. Many, many times someone has asked for advice about a problem which was thought to be serious. Some time, some reassurance, some instruction, encouragement to go to God with the problem, and perhaps some simple medication (provided by God) has brought relief to a situation feeling desperate. These simple services are not typically available to people here.
One’s sense of desperation is also enhanced by lack of perceived control. Lack of control is reality, as we have far less control in this life than we would like to think. (though we can know the one who IS in control). Money, as well as success, achievement, etc., can give one a temporary, perceived sense of control. The poor financial state of most of the rural folks in this region certainly adds to their sense of helplessness and desperation. Even physical pain cannot be easily controlled here. Studies on pain demonstrate that if a pain patient has a sense of control over their pain, it is less traumatizing for them. There are no pain medications available other than a Tylenol or Advil equivalent and to most these are unaffordable.
Because of its intensity, desperation demands a response. Our response can be healthy or it can be harmful. It can push one to unwise choices in an attempt to alleviate the felt need. Its emotional pain can also, like physical pain, humble one to seek help from outside oneself. We are, especially in the west, surprised when we feel desperation in our lives and we will, by denial, commonly avoid recognizing its presence. We will also work hard to, consciously or subconsciously, hide its presence from others, usually through facade. These methods of dealing with the reality of desperation, sad to say, are as common within the church as they are outside the church. Desperation is simply not an accepted part of the “American Dream”. It is not preached from the pulpit as an expected part of life, especially the Christian life. When desperation is experienced or when it is witnessed in someone else, by church-goer and nonchurch-goer alike, it often causes one to question the reality of a good God. On the other hand, desperation also can be a great "teacher", and cause one to abandon trust in one’s own worldview and accept the reality of things beyond understanding, like the existence of a sovereign, caring, personal God. Desperation is like insecurity or fear. They are not good or evil in and of themselves, but what we do in response to them will make them tools for drawing us to Jesus or we will become hard to Him and miss His heart for us in the midst of the pain.
People in the Amazon, like people anywhere, respond to desperation in various ways. It seems that, along with denial, distraction is man’s primary tool for dealing with desperation. Seeking means of temporary pleasure, apart from God, is a common means everywhere of dealing with desperation. Alcoholism is so common here. Promiscuity, as a means of avoiding the felt desperation, has all but destroyed any healthy sense of family in this region. The majority of children are born to children and grow up without a father. This is more of a partying culture than the States. "Having fun" today is a primary means of escaping the chronic pain of desperation. Everyone watches a lot of TV, even in the remote areas of the jungle (we joke that the national flower is the oversized satellite dish that is seen everywhere on the rivers). In public places, there is always loud music and loud TV playing, seemingly never allowing one a quiet moment.
One healthy response to desperation is to share it. We were created to share our joys and our pain in community. We benefit greatly from the love, concern, and encouragement from others especially when we are hurting. These are God’s tangible examples of His care for us. This sense of community and relational sharing is perhaps that which I have learned most from this culture. This is a strength of this culture as well as a personal weakness, and one which has been challenged by living here. People here are quite relational, choosing to face life among friends and relatives rather than alone. This social interaction can be used as a healthy support or it can be a means to avoid God, especially when solitude is difficult, with several families commonly occupy small, simple homes, especially on the rivers. The people here are generally gracious, and very kind, and intense conflict-avoiders, doing almost anything to avoid a conflict and keep relational peace, perhaps because of perceived current, or future needs. There is a striking humility in this culture, on the opposite end of a spectrum to the American, “rugged individualism”. Both perspectives have their strengths and weaknesses, and both result, I believe, from the chronic desperation that is, by design, part of being human.
Desperation is inherently related to desire and is the manifestation of desire unfulfilled. Desire is placed in us by our Creator and is intended to draw us to intimacy with Him, our real Father, and to motivate us to seek Him out. Any separation from this place of intimacy causes unfulfilled desire and can quickly take us to a place of desperation. Every moment of our lives, we can recognize our desperate state, and respond by going to Jesus or by going elsewhere for relief of this deep longing. Personally, I still know this hunger and thirst daily. Any desire ultimately points us to Jesus, and its fulfillment is found only in Him. The Bible is full of references about taking our natural desires and allowing them to cause us to desperately seek God. Any natural desire we have can lead us to Him. If we are sick, it is because God wants us to use the desire to be well to draw us to Him. If we have been rejected, or we are lonely, or we are frustrated; same thing – the purpose is to cause us to run to Him. His purpose in our lives is not building character, prosperity, goodness, or even healing, but rather our oneness with Him. So often, we emphasize the desire of God to make someone well, or His desire to resolve a difficult situation, and this simply is not His heart at all. His heart is to bring the suffering person closer to Him than he or she has ever been because being close to our Father is real healing, in the truest sense. He who allowed His Son to suffer for His purposes will certainly use this as a means for drawing us to Him, as well. He will certainly often use people as a means of meeting us in our desperate state and drawing us to Him.
It’s interesting to me that in 2007 Christendom, our sense of desperation is typically not satisfied after we are healed, or after we pray, become part of a church, do good deeds, have quiet times, try to follow the Bible or be “good” Christians. Why? Perhaps because these things were never meant to fill us and satisfy us and none of them in themselves indicate that we are close to our Father. We often feel that Christianity is being healed, having character, being a good person, praying, etc. Only Jesus, however, is the “bread of life” and the “living water” that satisfies our thirst. All these things (prayer, service, etc.) can provide the means to intimacy with Jesus, but they were never meant to be the end, or that which satisfies the longing of our heart. Only Jesus can satisfy the desperation that we feel, the longing to be loved, cared for, and understood, moment by moment. There is no “arrival”, no prayer that will remove our desperation once and for all. The battle will continue, as long as we have breath to become, and to remain, intimate with Jesus. The desperation we feel, as believers and unbelievers alike, will find its fulfillment only in drawing close to our Father, as Jesus did in His desperate moment in the garden, prior to His crucifixion. It will be satisfied in intimacy, intimacy with the One who made us desperate creatures and who allows desperate circumstances, so that we would run to HIM.
Please join me in using the desperation that God has placed within us today to passionately seek Him, seeing all else in this life as rubbish, by comparison. We will then know the joy of the fulfillment of His purposes in us, no matter our circumstances.