Drs. David and Claudia Graham at the mission hospital where they served.
A friend of mine, David Graham, recently returned from thirteen years in Ecuador. He had served as general surgeon and medical director of a mission hospital, and I visited him there in 2013. We were on the edge of a jungle and, besides the normal equipment, treatment rooms displayed jars of fearsome snakes and spiders with instructions for the appropriate antivenom.
The hospital, in fact, was established at the missionary base from which Jim Elliot and four friends took off in 1956 in an attempt to make contact with a fierce tribe known as the Huaorani. Operation Auca ended in tragedy as the Huaorani (known then by the pejorative word Auca for savages) killed all five of the missionaries. News of the “Auca martyrs” was broadcast around the world, and later their story was celebrated in a series of books by one of the widows, Elisabeth Elliot (who died in 2015), and by Ethel Wallis in collaboration with Rachel Saint.
While working at the hospital, David Graham married Claudia, an Ecuadorian physician who had coordinated health care for four provinces. For the two of them, 2015 involved a transition to a different country, a different language, and indeed a different culture. At the end of the year, David reflected on some of the changes that struck him as he returned to his native country. His insights gave me a new perspective on the U.S. and perhaps will do the same for you. Like me, I’m sure you have your own mental list of things that annoy and things that inspire gratitude.
For this blog, I’ve adapted the following text from David’s letter:
A surgeon practicing his blowgun skills.
A few of the many things that have annoyed or frustrated me:
- my first smart phone (they don’t come with any instruction book) which involved much frustration in learning how to use,
- automated calling machines that ring your house time and again, often looking for people who have listed your number as their own,
- credit ratings that too often penalize responsible living,
- everything requiring a username and password (on some sites they must be changed every 90 days),
- too many advertisements (whether TV, formerly ad-free YouTube, or videos linked to web pages that automatically play and must be stopped so you can read an article in peace), and
- far too many people on government disability who shouldn’t be, too much intravenous and oral narcotic abuse, too much obesity, far too much material waste in hospitals.
But looking at the cup half full:
- I love being able to use a credit card (not cash) to make purchases in any store or restaurant.
- I am glad to once again live in only one country (i.e., following one set of rules, not two), and to live among those who speak my native language.
- I am so happy to no longer have neighbors whose horrible throbbing music invades my home.
- I enjoy once again living in a place with four seasons (especially autumn).
- I am thankful for good health, and I am grateful for love in my life: in marriage, family and friendship.
Five books I read this year made me especially thankful:
- Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker,
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, I-II,
- Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking,
- Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, and
- Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy.
When you read of such tremendous injustice, human cruelty, and unbearable suffering (as the first three books describe) it makes your own complaints about work, government, or people seem petty. We don’t fear a midnight knock at the door and long jail sentences for political reasons; don’t walk around with our bellies empty; aren’t forced to go out and work in subzero freezing weather (where we will most likely die); don’t sleep piled up next to others on hard sleeping platforms; or worry if the next opening of our jail cell door will mean it is our turn to be taken out and shot. We also don’t live in a state of constant warfare, which was (and still is) the norm in pre-state, hunter-gatherer societies. And the tremendous change that literacy has made on previously oral societies has made possible science, history, public health, medicine, and philosophy; it has improved the length and health of our lives, and tremendously expanded our linguistic capabilities, all of which make the lives we lead historically privileged. I am grateful, truly grateful, for everything.
I must also mention some of my favorite old delights, renewed in 2015:
- autumn in East Tennessee (the colors, the temperature, the leaves changing),
- wildlife (We have a family of red-tailed hawks in a tree behind our house, plus neighborhood squirrels, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, foxes, and we have even seen a bear.),
- Tolstoy’s War & Peace (great every time you read it),
- Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky album (They give my favorite interpretation of his 1812 Overture.),
- eating at Cracker Barrel restaurants, and
- being close to family, and seeing old friends again.
And, finally, some favorite new discoveries:
- Gold Peake Green Tea (delicious!),
- Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chip and Caramel Apple Cookies (way better than anything Mrs. Fields makes),
- Zatarain’s Red Beans and Rice (has a Cajun flavor to it),
- Giovanni Bomol (Italian pianist—you can look for his videos on YouTube; try ‘Fire,’ ‘Autumn,’ ‘Pirate Attack’ or ‘Las Vegas’ to start with),
- the music of Two Steps from Hell (e.g., Strength of a Thousand Men),
- Sling TV (internet streaming for Olympic and specialized sports),
- Google Maps on Smart Phones (makes big-city driving so easy!), and
- the soothing screened-in porch behind our house, where it is quiet, and where we can sit in our rocking chairs and enjoy our wooded plot.
Reading through David’s lists, I couldn’t help contributing some of my own petty annoyances:
- updates from Microsoft that make other devices, software programs, and macros either obsolete or incompatible,
- panels of sportscasters, news commentators, and morning-show hosts who sit around giggling and interrupting each other,
- our crazy way of choosing a President, by lining up a dozen or more candidates in a “debate” to see who can come up with the cleverest zingers,
- electronic “keyboards” on iPads and smartphones that don’t include the characters I want,
- the whole notion of communicating through texting, which uses the least convenient keyboards and the smallest screens,
- the huge servings in American restaurants, contributing to obesity and food waste,
- hard plastic packaging that cuts your fingers when you open it, and
- soft plastic packaging: ziplock bags that neither zip nor lock like they’re supposed to.
And yet whenever I return from an international trip, I feel a wash of gratitude for the good old U.S.A. Compared to virtually anywhere else, we have low taxes, an abundance of freedom, an emphasis on consumer rights, checks and balances on corruption, good (though expensive) health care, and a reservoir of basic human decency. Every time I’m involved in an accident, or pull over with car trouble, some good-hearted soul stops to see if they can help. In some other countries, they would stop to rob me.
If we could just figure out a better way to choose a President…