Two Burdens, One Joy

In the early nineties, there was an old woman sitting by the road I was traveling towards Lusaka, Zambia.  She sat there, every day, for the better part of the day, making smaller rocks out of bigger rocks with a chisel and hammer.  As I walked by in my shorts and short sleeves, looking as American and spoiled as I could, she wiped the sweat from her eyes, took ten seconds away from her work, and smiled.  She did not speak.  Neither, did I.  For ten seconds, our eyes met, and we smiled.  I walked on towards my life and she sat there living hers.

Her face haunts me to this day.  In some strange way, her smile comforts me to this day.  That moment in time has defined me in a large way and is a point I go back to in my mind often.  I later learned that she probably made about one dollar for a day’s work of crushing rocks into gravel.  That the gravel she made was used mostly for the driveways of nicer homes in the more economically sound parts of the country.  That most likely, the gravel that was used on the grounds of the compound where I was staying, was made by her hands.

The first of two burdens that come with my experience of that woman on that day comes when I am tempted to complain about my situation.  (I say tempted, though usually I simply complain).  What right do I have to bemoan the fact that I have no cell phone service?  Is it such an offense that a waiter or waitress let me sit for two minutes without filling my water glass at a meal?  And yes, though I hate to admit it, if things are not going perfectly according to my notion of home or work life, should I be discontent?

The second burden comes when I get the eerie feeling that things are going too well.  When I step into the kitchen and find there is drinking water running from a spigot without having to walk for miles.  When I get into a vehicle and drive across town in order to eat a meal or see a friend.  When my wife and family actually have enough time to consider the question, “What do you want to do?”.  All of these things happen without my being thankful or realizing what good fortune they are.

There is, however, a joy that comes from the elderly woman on the side of the road which I casually walked by one summer in the early nineties.  It has nothing to do with material wealth or good fortune.  It has nothing to do with my being more comfortable than she most likely ever was.  It was her smile.  It beamed.  It was more memorable than most of what everyone said would be great to see in Africa.  It left an impression in my soul.  And the joy for me, is that each time you or I smile, we are able to create that same impression in another soul. And that, believe it or not, will be what changes the world.

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