5A problems

IMG_1922The wifi isn’t working.

The cleaners put too much starch in my shirt.

The lawn care service canceled again.

In my neighborhood, we call them 5A problems. Exit 5A off of Georgia 400 leads you to my humble enclave, where you’ll typically find more blessings than legitimate reasons to complain. It’s not like we’re immune to real problems. There is grief, job loss, anxiety, and the like. But in general, my neighbors and I are pretty comfortable in well-manicured suburbia. Often, we have to invent reasons to complain.

The driveway is cracked.

The maid forgot to take out the trash.

My shoestring broke.

At least we have shoestrings. And driveways. And lawns.

Guatemala is a hardscrabble country filled with sweat, determination, discouragement, unbridled poverty, and hope. Majestic volcanoes rise into the heavenly blue to provide a postcard image. You have to look closer, deep into the towering cornfields patrolled by chickens and stray dogs, to find the real Guatemala.

I discovered the essence of Guatemala on the first day of my visit, near the top of the San Pedro Volcano beside Lake Atitlan. I was feeling pretty good about my five mile climb that wasn’t as much about the distance as the altitude. The thin air of 9,000 feet had my lungs in a stranglehold. My leg muscles were screaming “no mas”, and I still had to hike down the volcano. I’d already started the process of patting myself on the back when I noticed two Guatemalan men calmly duplicating my effort with 50-pounds of firewood on their backs. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like congratulating myself. The biggest physical challenge I’d faced in decades was, to these guys, just another day in Guatemala.

The dog groomer canceled our appointment.

The cable is out again.

This traffic light stays red too long.

I met a family living in a home unworthy of being called a shack. It is nothing more than two rooms with flimsy wooden walls, a tin roof, and dirt floors. When it rains, and it does often in Guatemala, the floors turn to mud. The family matriarch, Tomasa, kneels in the dirt to create tapestries she sells at the local market. Her father-in-law murdered her husband during an argument about property, a crime that went unreported because Tomasa feared reprisals. Her five sons walk a half-mile along a narrow trail to get to their school bus (a retired Blue Bird bus manufactured in Georgia). The children don’t go to school every day. Sometimes, they go to work at a local market selling their mother’s wares. That includes Tomasa’s 8 and 11-year-old boys.

The bananas at Publix aren’t ripe enough.

The price of gasoline is absurd.

I can’t find the remote control.

More than half of Guatemala’s people living in poverty. It’s not due to lack of effort. The unemployment rate is less than 3%. Among the able-bodied men earning their keep is the 80ish-year-old I saw trying to lift himself off of a bench while burdened by a massive sack of avocados. The streets are teeming with street vendors aggressively offering crafts and baubles for a negotiated price. Only once did I encounter someone who extended an empty hand in hopes of receiving something for nothing.

I’m not writing this to claim the Guatemalan people work harder or deserve more than the rest of the world. There are people right here in Georgia, right here in metro-Atlanta, who deserve better for their efforts. And I’m not saying we should be ashamed of the trappings that come with our own success. But we were blessed to be born in the land of opportunity. We could just as easily have emerged in a “developing” country without the advantages and freedoms of America. It’s only when we open our eyes beyond our comfortable surroundings that we gain perspective. Since returning from Guatemala, I’ve found it difficult to complain about my 5A problems.

The garbage disposal is too loud.

The color doesn’t seem right on the wide-screen TV.

The announcers on this football game are biased.

By the way, I was in Guatemala to help build a new home for Tomasa and her boys. When finished, it will be two concrete block rooms with a finished floor. There will be no television, no Netflix, no remote control. She’ll continue to cook over an open wood fire that she will build each day. A hole in the ground will still serve as the family toilet. Still, Tomasa is so grateful for the upgrade that she gifted me and other volunteers with a basket of apples. It’s all she had to give other than the hugs and smiles that were all the reward any of us needed.

I am blessed to live in a wonderful country with a loving family, to have a roof over my head, a good job, great friends, and a God who will never abandon me. No, my life is not perfect, but there will always be someone who works more and has less, and there will always be someone who works less and has more.

Where does complaining lead you?

Well, it leads you to exit 5A, where you can grouse that your daughter keeps a messy room, or you can be grateful that she works hard and makes good grades. You can get upset that the cleaners ruined a perfectly good shirt, or be happy that you’ve got a closet full of adequate replacements. You can get worked up over the oddball sound coming from the engine of your Volvo, or rejoice in the friends who are willing to give you a ride whenever and wherever you need to go.

I could complain about my failing body that ached for days after my hike to the top of that volcano, or I can celebrate God’s glorious world and the revelations of a country thousands of miles from exit 5A.

For years, I’ve been carrying my petty 5A problems like a 50-pound stack of cordwood strapped to my back.

Thanks to the lessons of Guatemala, I’m learning not to make a volcano out of a molehill.