Emptied for Love
by Kent Annan
The following reflection is a revised entry from Kent Annan’s online journal. Kent Annan and his wife, Shelly Satran lived for seven months in Nandimba, Haiti, as part of Beyond Borders’ Apprenticeship in Shared Living Program. They met while both students at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, where after graduation Kent worked as an editor on the seminary’s staff for three years. After completion of the ASL program, they joined the Beyond Borders/Limyè Lavi staff. They now live in Vero Beach, Florida with their new baby girl, Simone. Kent is still on staff with Beyond Borders, coordinating the Living Words Program. Shelly is an assistant pastor at a Lutheran Church.
Wednesday, May 7, 2003
I want a Burger King bacon double cheeseburger. I want U2’s “Achtung Baby” blasting at the eardrum-bursting limit. I want to drive—fast as I want, no potholes, windows down, turning where I please. I want to rent two movies, pick up some chips and salsa and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to waste the night away. I want to impulsively pick up the phone and five seconds later be talking with my sister or brother. I want flawless Internet service. I want to nap on my ergonomically designed pillow with the air conditioner blasting frigid relief over me. I want to wander down to the library or the hip independent bookstore in town and pick up the latest hardback by my favorite novelist. I want to listen to Mike and the Mad Dog on New York City sports talk radio. I want 500 channels beaming through my satellite. I want to meander along paved streets lined with gorgeous cherry blossoms. I want to go to dinner at our friends’ place and then after dinner move to the living room and talk till midnight. I want to lose myself in competition, whether basketball or racquetball or chess or anything. I want. I want. I want.
I don’t really want all this now. But, did I ever want it all yesterday. (Okay, I still want all this now, but not so desperately.) That occasional dull, hollow, palpable ache settled in my chest yesterday afternoon—the ache that isn’t healed by anything in the above paragraph but is certainly numbed and soothed by everything above.
Instead I felt a bit helpless and impotent, a little lonely. I didn’t know what to do or why it should be done even if I should find something to do. Moving across cultures as thoroughly as we have recently done—to live in a tin-roofed home with a Haitian farming family (no running water, no electricity, rice and beans daily, etc.)—means leaving behind many of one’s legitimate pillars of strength, such as relationships and language. It also means leaving behind the culture and convenient escapes that are so reliably useful to soothe the mysterious ache that, for me at least, points toward God via the reality that life is disappointing and painful and incomplete.
Not that things on the above list are always bad. But part of why I looked forward to moving to Haiti is because I hate how easy it is to satiate my hunger for God and for Good and for Love by stuffing my appetites with food, with entertainment, with ambition, with stuff. How easy it is to fill the echo chamber that calls me toward God and Good and Love with other clanging noises. The absence in Haiti of choices to feed this profound hunger is unpleasant…but I need it. In the States I’m too often too weak to hunger for Good (or, to be explicitly biblical, to seek the kingdom of God) and to pull away from the dancing lights that have embarrassing power over me, like over a mindless, fluttering moth.
But yesterday as I scuffed along in my flip-flops, with my head bent slightly forward and disconsolate, through our nearby town of Leogane’s dusty streets, past the vendors selling fried plantains and discarded American T-shirts, the emptiness ached—with no choices for soothing or numbing it— and I actually turned toward prayer. Prayer in turn led me to think about and then find a way to do something small but tangible that will hopefully help one of my young neighbor’s health.
This is a confession of weakness, not an example of strength. I know I’m weak like this. If there’s medication within reach to ease my spirit’s distress, I’ll grab it and gulp it down hungrily. But I hate that that’s my reflexive response. I’d rather love or reach for God—or even just feel the truth behind the pain. I’m thankful today that I didn’t have America’s means for self-medication within reach yesterday, because I would have used them.