Fifth Prize - $2,000
Leah Shearer is a student in the English department at Northern Illinois University. She plans to attend graduate school this fall and eventually to teach college English. She was the winner of the Paul-Simon Essay Contest at her community college in 2010 and currently writes for the magazine, InVironments of Rochelle, IL.
I slowly unfolded the wax paper wrapped around my cheeseburger and stared at the three-dollar meal I had just bought. I looked at the leather seats of the booth, the fake plants that decorated the restaurant, and the flashy advertisements splattered on the walls. I felt relieved to be back in these surroundings, and that bothered me. I had just stepped off the plane an hour ago. I had just returned from a different world, but it was so easy to slide into the commercial flow of life.
As I continued to absorb my native culture, I thought about Peru. I remembered stepping off the bus in Llata, a tiny town in the Andes Mountains. I was surrounded by people dressed in tribal clothing, carrying their crops and children on their backs. Most of the buildings were made out of hardened clay with roofs of thatch or tin. I could see myself hoisting up my backpack while pushing through a sea of vibrantly colored clothes, work-lined faces, and donkeys laden with carts of goods.
I soon discovered that the Peruvian culture was beautiful, but its people were impoverished. I stayed with many people who didn’t have electricity, toilets, or running water. Most people lived only off their own crops. My mission team and I often slept on dirt or wood floors because there were rarely beds to be spared.
Making the transition into this lifestyle was difficult. My eyes were suddenly ripped open to a world other than my own. I began to understand that things like cultural documentaries or traveler’s magazines showed only a thin portrayal of real people with unique strengths and needs. As my mission team and I worked with the Peruvians, I could see that my own life had been easy. I realized that I had been selfishly focused on my own goals, oblivious to the desperate needs of humanity. I was accustomed to indulging in the rare luxuries of my native land without a second thought. I began to comprehend that I was not the only person in the world; I had a responsibility to help and love those in need.
In Peru, I learned that the world is full of pain, and workers are needed to help relieve the massive struggle. Fighting against the desperation of this world takes more than just effort: it requires sacrifice. I do not believe that personal enjoyment or relaxation is evil; such things are important aspects of a healthy, productive life. I do believe that perpetual indulgence can lead to selfishness that does not yield love. As Americans, we can afford many comforts that most of the world will never enjoy. Most of us can eat when we are hungry and drink when we are thirsty. We can throw on an extra layer of clothing if we get a chill. When we get sick, we run to the doctor’s office for treatment. We have free time to spend with friends and family, engaging in the recreational activity of choice.
It is easy to get consumed by this comfortable, enjoyable way of life. However, blessings in such great measure should compel us to embrace the consequential responsibility to humanity. I often find that I have trouble owning this responsibility. On a free day, it is easier for me laze around my house than to go hand out clothes to people in need. If I am in a hurry, I find that I can easily pretend I don’t see the person who needs help. When a friend needs support, it can be easier to offer an absent minded comment than to truly listen and provide sincere encouragement.
I don’t think that people were meant to function on their own. I believe that compassion not only aids the one being assisted, but also the compassionate person. Because life can be so painful, focusing only on your own struggles is detrimental. I know from personal experience that if I concentrate on my problems, my despair deepens. However, working to help other people alleviates self-bred depression. My mission trip taught me that lending aid to those in need is deeply rewarding; it creates a sense of self-purpose. If more people could grasp this knowledge, the pain of living would lesson not only because more help was being offered, but also because the helpers felt more satisfied and less inwardly focused.
“Love” has many meanings in the English language; it can be a strong word or a flippant one. We might use it when talking about a favorite hobby or to express deep affection for a family member. The love that I am trying to achieve is the kind that was shown by the greatest humanitarian of all time: Jesus Christ. When Jesus spoke of love, it had a singular, intense meaning. He lived and died by a love so great it could not be suppressed by complacency. He showed the world that real love will manifest itself through action. In both life and death, Jesus was an illumination of self-sacrifice and love. In John 15:13, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
You don’t need to travel to a third-world country to show compassion to those in need. I think that love can be as simple as helping someone load groceries into the car. Love can be going to a soup kitchen and feeding hungry people or it can be listening intently to a friend who needs support. Compassion can be practiced on a daily basis.
I used to think that love was just an affectionate or compassionate feeling. These emotions are important, but alone they do nothing to help the condition of our world. Love isn’t some wistful desire that the world would be a better place for everyone. It isn’t a warm sentiment and it isn’t feeling sorry for someone. Love is a driving passion that compels a person to act. It requires you to push through feelings of complacency or selfishness. It means embracing sympathy and putting it into action. It means sacrifice. Love is not simply a feeling: love is a way of life.
Published August 9, 2011; www.AmericanDaily.com.
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