I was in Wal-Mart shortly after getting married, shopping for household necessities. I’d bypassed the paper goods section, as I never buy napkins or paper towels, but found myself staring blankly at the row of trash bags. I couldn’t bring myself to put the trash bags in the cart, the internal guilt was overpowering, “You don’t need trash bags,” I kept repeating in my head until I was so disordered, I turned and walked away.
Mongolia was an impoverished country when I moved there and I imagine it still is in many ways. Food was scarce and we often ate expired foods, even going so far as to pick out the mouse droppings from our flour because it was what we had and there were no other options. Stores and restaurants were often open, yet they carried no food, only flat Pepsi and Russian Vodka. For snacks we would mix barley flour and hot water, topped with sugar or simply added some powdered milk to a can of sweet and condensed milk, making a thick and sweet dessert. It was a normal experience for our tongues to swell with sores from malnutrition and vitamin deficiency.
This poverty taught me that humanity could live off little and still survive. It also taught me, however, to carry guilt over any purchase or perceived luxury I might experience in its face.
I spend emotional energy feeling guilty that I have a refrigerator, AC units and enough food. In Southeast Asia I’d hide things I owned so ‘they wouldn’t feel bad.’ I wouldn’t be wasteful by using too much dish soap or buying a new shirt just because I’d like one. I’d feel guilt at the most random things and it has hurt me.
I don’t buy beautiful things because I feel guilty. I don’t buy everything I need at the grocery store because I feel guilty. I don’t buy shoes because I feel guilty. I don’t enjoy food because I feel guilty.
Honestly, when Paul talks about being content in both abundance and need, I can’t relate. God could pour out an abundance of security on me and I wouldn’t know what to do with it. At this point in my journey I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it. It would feel wrong. I would feel as though I was sinning by having enough.
It’s a funny thing how exposure to poverty can be a two sided coin. On one hand I can relate to and connect with and humanize those who experience such impoverished conditions. I can see the faces of my friends; I know their pain and their struggle to survive. Yet, the guilt of leaving, of having a way out of poverty, carries on with me.
I was a young teen when this guilt began in me. I can remember the thoughts. I can remember the feeling in my chest when I differentiated my own poverty from those around me. I knew I would leave this place, whereas my friends, those that I loved, would remain.
I have lived my life in such a state of intensity, from childhood to college re-entry, to 4 babies in 3 years, support raising, moving back overseas and now returning ‘home’ that anything less then chaos is scary. Anything enjoyable I experience for the sake of being enjoyable carries an anxiety with it, like I’m going to get in trouble with God. Or that I am betraying those I left behind.
So, chaos, need, sacrifice and pain have become my norm. Maybe it’s a type of self-flagellation nested in the belief that I am not worthy of God’s good, peace or security. Is it any wonder I struggle with depression?
This struggle with guilt is real but I yearn to be open to receiving gifts of God as he sees fit to give. I want to enjoy what he deems enjoyable and I want to lean into his chest, hear his heartbeat and trust that he is working out a beautiful plan of reconciliation in the world. Yet the guilt holds me back. The shame I carry when I experience good things keeps me from diving head first into God. But I know he’s there, waiting for me, and I know that I am getting closer. I can feel it. I can feel the transformation of my own heart and in that, I have peace.
How do you handle feelings of guilt in the face of poverty?