This blog is not intended to be a lecture on life; far from it. This is simply my recalling of a humbling expedition I was a part of that changed my very soul. It turned my life right-side-up and made me re-evaluate the benefits of pain and adversity while gaining a great admiration for the Cambodian blue collar worker. This is just one snap-shot from that trip and merely one of my stories to tell.
I’d just had a serious back operation two years before I landed at a small airport, in Cambodia. We had flown briefly over Cambodia’s wealthy neighbor Thailand and then suddenly, like a step back in time, descended over rice fields, farms and oxen. The juxtaposition of the two countries was staggering.
It was the year 2001. I had reluctantly gone on this mission to build a church in one of the poorest parts of Cambodia. On the way to work everyday we would pass ox carts and grass huts that looked like they were from hundreds of years ago. On the last week I was there, while I working in the field, without warning, in an instant, my back muscles pulled, or a disc shifted, so badly that the nerves felt like an electric shock that became instantly incapacitating. It was a combination of tremendous pain and what felt like an electrocution. I could barely breathe.
There’s no way to explain that type of pain to anyone unless they’d lived through something similar. It’s as if you’re part of the pain, it’s all encompassing. It’s as if you can’t locate it because it’s everywhere. After a few seconds I knew that the pain was going to be tolerable because I hadn’t blacked out yet. One other time in my life I’ve had that “circuit breaker” type of pain where your body just shuts off and you lose consciousness.
So there I was in Cambodia, 8,000 miles from home with no doctors, no medical facilities and in extreme pain. It was a unique feeling of being alone. I thought to myself that these people I’ve been working with have lived with this lack of medical care for their entire lives. They’ve known nothing else. There were also quite a few people with missing limbs who were victims of exploded land mines left over from the Vietnam War era. There were also countless people who had lost the sight in one, or both eyes due to lack of medical care or accidents or both. In comparison, I had nothing to complain about. It was just some pain that would eventually diminish. I was in a rice field, soaked in sweat, in excruciating pain and I somehow felt fortunate.
Someone drove me back to town to where we were staying at night so I could lie flat and try to recover. I didn’t want to sit in my room with the Geckos but rather, I wanted to help finish the job we came there to do. We were on our last two days that would complete the mission. I felt lucky when the next day it rained. It was monsoon season there in November and, as you can imagine, it made work impossible for anyone when it was raining that hard. I felt like I wasn’t letting anyone down while it was raining so, I could relax for the time being. I sat in my room watching sheets of warm water coming down outside. Something about it was relaxing.
I ended up back at the job site after two days of rain and the first thing that all the workers wanted to see was the scar on my back from my operation. I was not only stunned that they knew I had a scar on my back but also that there was so much interest in it. By the small crowd that was waiting for me, you’d think I was some sort of celebrity when I showed up. The scar was the evidence of the “work” that a doctor had performed on me by cutting me open. To them the scar looked straight and intentional.
I later learned that there were two things that caught their interest. One, just how important of a person was this Westerner who was able to get that type of medical attention? For them, only the very rich got medical care and rich people didn’t work in rice fields. They thought that for me to have received this type of talented, uncommon medical expertise, I must surely be someone of importance. There was this contradiction they thought due to my working. That alone surprised me.
The second thing they were interested in, as was explained to me by our mission leader who spoke Khmer, was that he had tried to explain to them that the doctor had cut through the skin and back muscles, then cut parts of the bone out with a laser and trimmed disc material between those bones in order to “repair” me. He told me he had a hard time explaining what that meant because the workers couldn’t get past the fact that doctors could go inside your back and fix you. He had to drop his explanation of a laser. The entire concept was foreign to them.
To give you just one quick example of why they thought that way; On the last day we were in Cambodia I visited with a man who had broken his lower leg when a large rock had fallen on it. It was permanently broken and disfigured, bent at the knee and that was the end of it. As long as he didn’t fall ill due to infection, he just lived with the deformity. This was considered normal for the poor, which was most of the population.
Now someone out there is probably saying; “Oh come on! Everybody knows about doctors and operations, even if they can’t afford it!” Not so. Most of the population of Cambodia was very young due to the Khmer Rouge Camps and Pol Pot having killed all of the educated people as well as the older people that knew the past. Pol Pot wanted an uneducated populous so it was easier to control so he could build his master race from scratch. If you wore glasses, the Khmer Rouge figured you could read, and that therefore, you were educated. That was enough for them to kill you. Pol Pot ended up killing over two million people. This history was being hidden from the younger people as well. All the books we saw in Cambodia on this subject were in English. This is where the movie that came out in 1984 called, “The Killing Fields” came from.
Our guide had lost 13 family members in the Khmer Rouge camps but he had survived and he gave me some insight into how it was in the camps. Here’s just one snippet of many stories he told me. If you tried to hide your education, they tested you with things only a farmer would know like driving an ox cart. If you couldn’t drive the cart, you’d die. They didn’t want anyone organizing a rebellion or anyone with any type of education to explain to the masses what was happening to them.
So this younger, surviving population wasn’t familiar with a lot of what we consider to be, common knowledge. They certainly didn’t have any access to medical care. That was only for the elite. That’s one thing that stood out as very odd to me was that everyone was young. Pol Pot’s killings had occurred from 1975-1979. Some have estimated that he killed up to 3 million souls.
Keeping this lack of what we consider to be common knowledge on medical care in mind, it’s not difficult to see why they were so interested in my back. When I got back to the job site, our host wanted me to take my shirt off and let them see the scar. So I did and they all crowded around me and I could feel them running their fingers over the six inch scar and talking to each other as our host explained something to them in Khmer. I stood there for probably 10-15 minutes. That was to be just one of many moments I was to experience in Cambodia that would change my life and have me rethink who I thought I was. I’d never seen so clearly how fortunate I was to live in a country where the doctors regularly and competently performed complex operations and did it all for the common citizen. All of the things we took for granted at home, these people had never experienced. Something as simple as running water in the house.
I felt spoiled for not having appreciated it before. I thought I had appreciated things in life but now it made me wonder how much I took for granted or expected. It made me look at these people I was working with differently. They “toughed out” life. Not just a tough afternoon at the gym, running a race or a tough game, but life. It’s different. After spending time with these people, it made me think that the heroes we admire in sports, are receiving misdirected and much over inflated admiration to put it mildly. These Cambodians didn’t have the luxury of the medical safety net we all take for granted and expect here in the States. If you hurt yourself badly in Cambodia and couldn’t work, you were done. Sometimes done for life. They didn’t have the opportunity for an education at any level, let alone a job when they left school. The people we worked with made a dollar a day if they could find work at all. If they did find a job, they were glad to have it. We need unions, higher wages, vacations, sick days, health insurance and the list goes on. We don’t realize how good we have it.
It made me recall the Indian proverb which says; “If you want to know what the water is like, don’t ask the fish.” We’re all in our own water. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with what we haven’t experienced or are unfamiliar with. We need to look outside ourselves, be grateful for the smallest things such as, being able to walk, talk, having sight in both eyes and a roof over our heads that’s not made from straw. When we find ourselves experiencing pain, suffering or adversity, do we complain and feel sorry for ourselves or do we look for the message on how we are to build our character being grateful for what we have? Sometimes the only control we have in painful situations is how we handle ourselves in going through it and what we take away from it. There is always meaning. Are we listening for it?
If life is meaningless and a product of random chance and luck, then pain and suffering are simply unfortunate things we encounter and we shouldn’t complain because “survival of the fittest” is common in nature under a naturalistic worldview. However if life does have meaning and is a product of an intelligent designer, then it would make sense that in an ordered universe, there is no such thing as random chance or luck and that everything has meaning. This would make me believe that there is a lesson for us to learn, if we choose to, in whatever we encounter. Everything has a purpose.
Do we consider why we were put in a particular place, at a particular time? Will we learn from it regardless of whether we view it as a positive or a negative experience? If we don’t learn from it, and we just chalk it up to being “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” doesn’t it simply become just an unfortunate event that happened to us and don’t we demote ourselves to someone to be pitied?
My injury became a learning experience that was dictated by a combination of pain and location. If I’d hurt my back again in the states, I’d just have laid down and recovered but never would have felt that sense of helplessness so commonly felt by a large part of the world. If I’d simply gone to Cambodia and never hurt myself, I’d have walked away with a lesson that was less helpful, maybe even misdirected or useless. I went to Cambodia thinking I was going to teach the Cambodians about construction. Instead, they and the condition of their country changed my life and how I look at the world. I can’t help but think it was orchestrated as a lesson.
It dawned on me, early on, that the Cambodians didn’t need my help nor my wisdom. What I needed was to find out why I was put there, in that place, at that time, and what I was supposed to learn from it. I’d like to suggest that no matter what your circumstances are there is an opportunity to learn, to endure, to build character. Is it possible to build character without experiencing adversity? I personally don’t think so. I can’t think of much wisdom I’ve gained through everything going well. The most important lessons we learn in life are through adversity, pain, suffering and sacrifice. So why is it that when hard times come, we all would rather not participate? Sometimes we don’t understand the reasons for what we’re going through but that doesn’t mean it can’t be discovered.
The Cambodians I met and worked with were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. They saw their circumstances as normative and they endured. I don’t know what they would have to do, short of having a life threatening experience, to not be amongst the most compromised people on the planet. Life is hard for them. I felt fortunate that I had the experience of going to Cambodia and meeting those courageous people. It changed me. It changed my life.
If we could stop crying out when adversity strikes, maybe we could hear the voice that whispers the messages we only hear when it’s quiet in our hearts. Can you hear it?
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