The fourth day of July is just an ordinary day in Bolivia. That’s where I spent our Independence Day in 1998. There were no fireworks or cookouts in the rural town of Colon Sur, of course. The only celebration was just three young college girls from the United States enjoying some strawberry soda and cookies.
Our days in Colon Sur were spent visiting the adobe homes of some of the most hospitable people I have ever met, helping out with household projects and practicing our Spanish. Many of our evenings were rich because we spent them with the children of the town. They laughed at my funny accent, listened with curiosity when we spoke to each other in English, and played games with us. The only child we could never make friends with was a young boy who ran and hid every time he saw us approach his house. According to his mother, the only white woman he had encountered in person before us was a nurse who gave him a shot.
I loved all of the children, but the one I still think about the most is a girl named “Ana.” Due to an accident when she was a toddler, she had lost her hearing. Since there was no government program or private service to help Ana and her family, she could not communicate with others….well, I shouldn’t say she couldn’t communicate. She could not sign, but she did smile all the time, sit dutifully in a desk each school day and mimic the other students’ behaviors, and embarrass the boys on the soccer field with her skills! We were told there was a surgery that most likely could restore some of her hearing, but that it would cost thousands of dollars that her family could never earn in a lifetime as farmers in rural southern Bolivia.
When I start to become discontented while sitting in my air-conditioned home with indoor plumbing, parasite-free water, wireless Internet, Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, a closet full of clothes, cabinets full of food, toys that make my children smile lying in every corner, and automobiles outside, I think of Ana. She and her family possessed not one of those things that Americans typically acquire in our pursuit of happiness, but she found ways to be happy. Ana helped me realize two very important things about my own life:
First, my ability to actively pursue happiness in life has been much greater than that of many humans, simply because of where I was born. Just think of how Ana’s life would have been different if she had her accident as a young girl in the United States. Even if her family was poor, she most likely would have had both corrective surgery and years of individualized education by the time she reached the age at which I met her.
I try to keep this awareness in mind as I live my days. You know that I love designer shoes and overpriced coffee, but I do try to stay grateful for all of the opportunities Brandon and I have to pursue happiness for ourselves and for you and your brothers. When I sit down at a nice restaurant, I remind myself that I am among a minority of humans who get to do that. If you can keep that awareness about you as well, it will alter how you respond when the waiter brings the wrong cut of steak.
The second realization that Ana’s beautiful smile offered me is that the pursuit of happiness doesn’t always lead to happiness. How many millionaire celebrities could we name who had it all and epitomized the American Dream, but were still miserable? I don’t point that out to you from twisted jealously, but out of a sincere sadness for those people with incredible talents and opportunities who still could not find happiness. Ana had almost no opportunities, and many of her talents would surely be trapped in her silent world. Still, she exuded kindness to others and displayed a contentment at her school desk that defies explanation.
When I started writing this letter to you today, I did not anticpate that I would cry. But I did. I cried thinking about just how much is lost when children do not have access to resources. My consolation is found in a desire to teach you and the twins to make the most of your own opportunities, and help others to have opportunties. The other consolation I have is to remember how much beauty exists in children in spite of tragedy and loss.
One day in that tiny town in Bolivia, the three of us girls were able to spend some time with just Ana. It was early evening, so the clouds were starting to roll over the mountains, creating a beautiful backdrop to our playtime. We had so fallen in love with Ana that we wanted her to have time away from the other children to pick out stickers that she liked and use our crayons for a bit without having to share. (We were not allowed to give the children any gifts other than stickers.) We started blowing bubbles, something none of the children there had, and Ana was delighted to see the bubbles float around us.
I remember Ana gently taking the bubble wand from the hand of “Mara.” Ana dipped the wand into the bubble mix as she had seen us do, but when she blew, she blew too hard and no bubbles magically appeared. Ana looked disappointed, and the three of us couldn’t take that look as she handed the wand back to Mara, so we decided to just keep blowing bubbles for Ana.
I will never forget the moment when Mara was about to blow bubbles and suddenly, two small fingers swiftly appeared in front of Mara’s mouth, taking measure of the strength of her breath. That was all Ana needed. She promptly but politely regained the bubble wand from Mara and began blowing bubbles with expert skill, while three girls from the land of the free silently fought with our emotions and our tears.
The beauty of that moment is something I cannot put into words. Resilience. Children have it. It’s why they can create so many amazing things and should be offered the best we as adults have to give.
I am thankful that my sons were born in a country with so many opportunities to puruse happiness. Be a man who wants to preserve that particular type of freedom. Be a man who lives with a grateful awareness of what you have. Finally, my son, remember that for all of your pursuits to obtain happiness, true joy is still a different quality that can only be found in Christ.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. I Timothy 6:6
I love you forever,