It is striking that non-Western – and often non-Christian – people seem to be able to teach us essential lessons about life. Lately, two encounters with non-European women have made me question our individualistic lifestyles in a particular way.
After the birth of our daughter, I was matched with an Armenian woman in a maternity assistance program. I’ll name her Anahit here, not her real name. During the many hours spent together, I could peek into the captivating life of this lady. With her husband and two kids, Anahit had come to Belgium out of utter economic necessity. Life back in Armenia was so expensive a normal salary could not suffice to buy groceries. They lived in a super tiny apartment. Holding an Armenian nursing degree, Anahit would have loved to do proper nursing work in Belgium, but the Belgian authorities unfortunately didn’t recognize her degree. So she had to accept the non-medical tasks of a maternity assistant, like bathing and swaddling babies and helping their mothers out with household chores, but she was OK with it. She‘d been in that job for three years by the time we met, and had quickly become a pro at it (granted – the way she could, in just three hours of time, make a fruit salad, iron all the remaining clothes in the laundry basket and conjure up a meal while caring for my two weeks-old baby left me baffled).
Reflecting on her situation made me feel a bit awkward. At the time, I was in search of a job, and the uncertainty about the near future had been greatly bothering me. But the problem was not that I couldn’t find a job; rather that I wanted one that was perfect – actually, I only aspired to one specific position…
I told the maternity assistant about my concerns, and that on top of that I’d had a terrible night with the baby and I simply Couldn’t Do It Anymore!
“You’re the second one today”, Anahit answered laughingly. “The lady I come from had her baby awake from 2 to 6 am in the morning. I told her: that’s just how it is with newborns! As to your employment situation… Your husband has an income and you’ve got a roof over your head, so what is it you’re really worrying about?”
We sat down for a chat. Anahit told me it surprised her the mothers in this town seemed having such a hard time caring for their newborns. It confounded her that they seemed to be under such high levels of stress or even despair. Whereas there were other, and more real, troubles to be resolved in the world. Herself, she’d been profoundly shaped by her childhood in Armenia, which at that moment faced a war. One image that would never leave her mind, Anahit told me, was the image of a woman lying dead in the street, her breasts cut off.
Not so long after that, I got to know Soraya (again not her real name), a woman with roots in Morocco. She worked as our cleaning lady. (Think about this: isn’t it an odd twist of history? Many people rooted in traditional family-based cultures today migrate to Western countries, where they often find themselves employed in the domestic service sector, for the benefit of our individualistic and double-income households…)
At our first appointment, I was surprised to learn that, despite her youthful appearance, Soraya had eight children. Her husband had become ill, which forced her to work fulltime as a cleaning lady to provide for a living for this large family, including two children still in college. But she always arrived with the greatest smile, often bringing along a homemade Moroccan dish or some other present. And even during Ramadan, when she couldn’t eat nor drink during the day (and our apartment happens to be an oven during the summer months), it was difficult to see signs of complaint on her face. Her parents were divorced and her dad lived far away. He suffered from terminal cancer, but her family almost never got to visit him because they couldn’t afford the travel. At my worried reaction, Soraya smiled with a motherly response: “That’s how it is, dear, that’s life”. At one point during our small talks I found out that, apparently, she had given birth to two of her eight children in breech presentation! As cheerful as you please, she detailed that there were 15 midwives assisting her for the delivery and yes, it did hurt, she concluded with a contagious laugh: “Haha yes, you need courage, don’t you!”
A hard lesson
The interaction with these ladies has left me speechless multiple times. I was amazed by the fact that they had so little concern about themselves, that their ‘egos’ obviously were so dis-bombasted, that they weren’t constantly thinking about their own desires and plans. That they didn’t lose their minds when things didn’t turn out the way they expected. That they kept so strong in the face of an often miserable situation.
And we, prosperous people from the West, can get upset by something as stupid as an intruder making us lose a bit of time!
What a lesson we can learn from this: realizing how individualistic we really live and think.
Contemporary Western culture sees the happy life as the autonomous life. A life where we can at any given moment decide what we wish to do and carry those plans out. We are happy when we are ‘in control’. In this representation of happiness, ‘me’ is the pivot around which everything turns. As (then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger already said in an Advent homily in 1964, we tend to see other people as satellites evolving around our proper selves.
But the problem is: this representation of happiness is contrary to reality. The truth is that we are not in control.
First, there is a philosophical error: the world and its events could not possibly be subordinated to my individual will. Think about it: if this conception of happiness were in conformity to reality, the globe would be populated by 7 billion people who all of them sincerely believe that the external world (including the other 7 billion people) should follow their wishes and desires.
Second, there is an anthropological error which causes in fact great unhappiness. Because human beings only become truly human in interaction with other human beings. A life only gets meaning when it is freely given for the sake of others and for God. Jesus has taught us this mystery of life and love so overwhelmingly on the cross. Albeit reluctantly, we must conclude that life is ultimately not about ourselves. The whole Christian life on earth is a pilgrimage towards getting there. With all of the material wealth and prosperity our Western culture has to offer, here we face a ‘competitive disadvantage’ compared to non-Western cultures. Let’s be open to learn from them.