I believe contentment has a lot more to do with our responses to circumstances than with those actual circumstances. I have seen families living without electricity or running water who ooze contentment and joy and I’ve seen families living in ostentatious wealth who seem paralyzed by a lack of gratitude and contentment.
And, I’ve seen in my own heart that I could go either way.
For thirteen years now, I’ve been raising my kids in the Horn of Africa. It hasn’t always been easy and there have been many days when all I wanted were five one-way airplane tickets out (and on the worst days? One ticket would have sufficed). But on far more days, I’ve experienced a deep and abiding contentment, a peace with our choice and life here.
Here are four things that help me make the choice to be content:
Don’t Focus on the Limitations
There is no English education (except it is coming – check out the International School of Djibouti!) There is no lush, green park. There is no playground (except for a few hours two nights a week). There are no grandparents. There are few extracurricular options. If I let myself sit in these realities, I quickly grow discouraged and feel like I’m failing my children.
But, when I focus on the opportunities, I realize what an incredible childhood they are having. Swimming with whale sharks, hiking inside active volcanoes, floating in the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa, speaking several languages. There is a tennis club, no it isn’t fancy, but it exists. There is a soccer team, yes my girls are often the only girls who play and they play on cement, but they are welcomed. No, there aren’t any relatives but there are local people who love my kids.
Don’t Put Fear in Charge
Health care here is pretty atrocious. There are armed guards at school, grocery stores, church, and on random corners throughout the city. There have been robberies, terror attacks, diseases, evacuations, sexual harassment.
Terrible things could happen anywhere, they do happen anywhere. There is also very little petty crime, people who stand up for us, a wonderful amount of freedom and space for kids to play and bike and walk to the corner store. There is diversity and community and exploration and discovery, there is a rich cross-cultural life.
Don’t Forget Their Roots
Living abroad, it could be easy to feel that my kids are disconnected, untethered to their history. But my kids come from somewhere, from someone. They have grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles. Their roots include farmers and medical professionals and business people, people of faith and character. Teaching the kids where they come from, even if they don’t live close to these people currently, gives us all a sense of being connected. And being connected, knowing that you belong somewhere can provide a strong sense of contentment and meaning no matter where you currently reside.
Don’t Refuse to Engage
Some days it is hard to engage with the local community and it can be easier to close the door, to speak English, to not be curious. It is exhausting to always be learning how to live, how to do things that come with instinct in my native Minnesota.
But engaging with the local community is what makes living abroad ultimately worthwhile. Taking the risk to make friends, to become part of that community even as outsiders, and watching my kids develop friendships and the ability to navigate cultures with ease, are some of the highlights of living here.
Contentment comes down to the choices we make, in response to the situations we face. Sometimes it is easier for me to focus on the garbage dump but the far better choice, when I think about raising my kids in the Horn of Africa, is to lift my eyes up the mountains.
How do you hold onto contentment?