As I stepped off the dry dirt into the van with my Nike shoes and comfortable clothes on, I looked around me as the children stood there barefoot with huge smiles waving goodbye to me. Tears began to stream down my face, no hiding the emotion as I began to cry out loud. "How is this ok?! Why do I get to have what I have and these children have nothing?!" They have NOTHING, yet have so much joy?! How can it be? This is not just in the movies you watch or commercials you see, it is real life. I do not understand, seeing it and witnessing it are two completely different things. I wanted to bring every single precious child home with me after that day. For the next few hours I didn't begin to miss home and the wonderful luxuries we have, I began to evaluate myself and the big picture. My first thought was, "when I return home, I am selling everything I own. I am leaving everything I brought here with these people. I can totally make it without anything, right?"
You are probably wondering where I am. A beautiful place called Cork, South Africa. It is not beautiful from the outside looking in, but rather the people who make it up. A place where poverty is natural, children are without food for days, sometimes weeks and where it is normal to not have a mother or a father. A place where there are hundreds of orphans with nothing and no one. A place where people are thankful for the little things like shoes for their feet, clean water to drink, a soccer ball to play with or even a new face they have never seen before. A place that changed my life forever, a place that I hold so close to my heart, and a place that often makes me sit back and humble myself about my sometimes "lonely" felt life.
You see over here in the U.S. we are so spoiled, to the point where it is often disgusting to me. We can pretty much go anywhere to get a cold bottle of water, we can call a place to deliver us food, and we can shop for clothes online and have them shipped right to our door. I remember it like it was yesterday when we landed back in the states after being in Africa for 14 days. As soon as I stepped foot off the plane, I ran to the bathroom and got physically sick. Overwhelmed with tears and anger again as I glanced at the people traveling with their Louis Vuitton, Starbucks and nice fancy shoes wondering if they had any clue of how good they have it.
In those two weeks I learned to be thankful for the simple things that I so easily took for granted, to be grateful that I had a family, a big family, a mother and father who raised me, friends who even though at times let me down were still there for me when I needed them most. The children made the largest impact on me. They taught me to always have joy and a smile on my face no matter what the circumstance, to make the best of every situation and that life is not all about what you have, it's how you choose to act with what you do have.
For the next four years, sadly enough, I slowly forgot about those feelings. Mornings of waking up and not wanting to go to my job that provided me a living, afternoons when I was upset because my sister couldn't meet me for dinner, nights of being angry because the air was on 74 degrees and I felt I could not sleep because it was too hot. Then there were birthdays when I would want to take a big trip or get an expensive purse, Christmases where I had ten or more presents to open, and all the times in between when I always wanted more. I forgot to be thankful for the simple things in life and to have joy in all circumstances.
This past year, I felt this sense of loneliness and emptiness. I never would have imagined leaving everything I ever knew. My family, my friends, my church, my job, all of which was "home." When the fairytale went away after the wedding and honeymoon and real life began, I started to feel extremely lonely. Feet propped up on my favorite piece of furniture, no where to be yet a house full of wedding gifts and lots of organizing to be done, I sat alone in this room and began to cry. Wait, is this was depression feels like? Could this be? My whole life I have been through it all and never once did I feel I was depressed. Ok, maybe I am just lonely, I mean after all I do not have any family around me and I barely know four people. Let the emotional eating begin folks, no seriously. Get it together Neely, you just had the most beautiful wedding, an unforgettable honeymoon and you are now married to an amazing man who is out there working hard to provide for you, not to mention you are in the perfect little city. So what is the problem?!?!
So then it hit me, the mental picture of being in South Africa. What did I learn from that trip? How fortunate am I and what in the world is my definition of "lonely" because it would make most laugh I am sure. Feelings of guilt flooded over me as I sat and thought, "how could I ever complain or say I am lonely?!" On the days that I feel as if I am this woman who has nothing and no one, I am reminded that there really are women out there where that is their reality, I have seen it. I knew right then and there that I was teaching myself to become humble again and to be thankful for all I had. Yes, I might not have family right down the road, but I do have family. My friends might not be able to meet me for dinner because I live over two hours away, but I do have friends. Our house might not be what we want it to be exactly, but we do have a home with a roof over our heads and a nice comfy bed to sleep in. Our bills might be overwhelming at times, but we do have jobs that pays for them.
I am so thankful for what I learned, forgot and taught myself again through a time of what I thought was loneliness and emptiness. Have you ever felt alone like you have no one or nothing? Do you ever take things for granted? We all do! Sometimes it takes humbling yourself, stepping out of your comfort zone and re-evaluating what you really have. I encourage you, no matter what the situation or place you might be in to ask yourself, "what can I learn from this person, or what can I take from this situation and apply it to my life?" I am beyond grateful for April 2010 in South Africa, but even more so the four years after that brought me to this past year of realizing all that I have been blessed with. My hope is that I never forget again what others are going through alone with no one around and how their actions show their joyful hearts.