“What’s the poorest country you’ve ever been to?” That question was once famously asked to Mother Teresa by an American reporter in the 1970’s. Her response?
“I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.”
Obviously unprepared for such an answer, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries in the world and questioned why she said it was the poorest. “Because”, she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”
That was close to 50 years ago. What do you think she’d say today?
There’s no denying it. It’s a fact. The world we live in is poor – not in terms of money or possessions…not in terms of entertainment and pleasure…and certainly not in terms of technology and advancement. In those areas, we are undoubtedly at the top of the food chain.
But there’s more than just one way to be poor. Some are materially poor. Some are spiritually poor. And some are relationally poor. And it’s in regards to that third one – relational poverty – where the words of Mother Teresa ring true: America might just be the poorest country in the world.
Blame it on social media. Blame it on the increased demands of work. Blame it on the guy in the White House for all I care (it’s gotta be his fault somehow right?). It doesn’t really matter. The fact of the matter is that we’re living in it. It doesn’t matter where it came from; the only thing that matters is what we plan to do about it.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. A year or so ago, I caught a vivid glimpse of this relational poverty playing it out in front of my eyes.
I was in Dulles airport waiting for an early morning flight to Boston. Just across from me were three young ladies – probably in their early 20’s – also waiting for the same flight. We had about 15-20 minutes till boarding so they were doing what everyone was doing (including me) – checking their phones and taking advantage of the cell phone reception before boarding the plane. No problem there.
Then we heard the announcement over the loud speaker – the same announcement that I seem to hear before every flight I take these days: "Your flight has been delayed.” The original delay was 20 minutes…that turned into 1 hour… and then that eventually turned into a cancellation altogether.
FYI, I’ve come to the realization that I’m the modern day Jonah when it comes to airplanes. If I’m on your flight, there’s sure to be a delay, cancellation, or unexpected emergency of some sort. Throw me overboard however and watch the sky clear up. Let’s keep this as our little secret and please don’t tell the folks from TSA :)
Back to my story. The three young women spent the entire time with their faces buried in their phones. And the strangest part to me was the fact that they were NOT ignoring one another. Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. They were talking up a storm the whole time – but it was in response to whatever was happening on their phones.
For example (names changed to protect the innocent):
“Oh my goodness! I cannot believe that Jessie posted that picture online. Is she crazy?”
“Julie, did see what Adam said on the evite for the party this weekend?”
“Really? No way! Check this out guys, look at the text message I just got from Justin…”
“Who is that weird looking guy in front of us with the beard and black robe? I bet it’s his fault that our flight is getting cancelled.”
[ok, that last one wasn’t true. But the rest of them were. Just making sure that you’re paying attention.]
What’s wrong with us people? We’ve been duped. We’ve traded in quality for quantity. We’ve sacrificed depth for superficiality. We focus on acquiring “friends” instead of on building friendships.
That makes us poor. Relationally poor. And that's a sad state to live in.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You and I have the choice to stand up and say NO to relational poverty. We can choose to invest in meaningful relationships with our family and friends. We can focus on “enjoying the moment” vs “taking a picture so I can tell others about the moment.” We can choose to be rich!
The choice is yours. Now put your phone down and do something about it.
P.S. If this topic strikes a nerve with you, you can check out a series I did several years back called #reFriending: Real Friendships in a Virtual World. Could be just what the doctor ordered for the relational poverty around you.