“One thing I noticed right away was how happy the people are,” a friend said as we chatted about my trip to Honduras a few days after I had returned. She, too, had traveled to Honduras a few years ago, and she admitted she had been charmed and impressed by the people she’d met there.
I nodded, agreeing with my friend’s observation. It’s true, the people I met in Honduras did seem genuinely happy. I noticed it too. They were quick to laugh and to smile. Many of them clearly enjoyed engaging and even joking around with “the North Americans,” as they called us. They exuded a sense of ease that was both disarmingly unfamiliar and deeply appealing.
And yet, ever since that conversation with my friend, I’ve felt uneasy. I can’t help but wonder: what if in declaring the people who live in developing countries as “happy,” we are oversimplfying both who they are and the circumstances in which they live?
The people are so happy. The people live such simple, contented lives. The people have their priorities straight. The people value what’s truly important. The people are free from all the trivial, materialistic stuff that bogs us down.
There is truth to these statements. I witnessed genuine joy in Honduras. I saw a kind of life that was, in many ways, simpler and far less materialistic than my own life. I met people who value family and community, who work hard and who love God and their neighbors.
But that is only part of the story.
The whole story is much harder and much more complicated. The whole story is that in addition to smiles and joy, I also saw unimaginable poverty and suffering in Honduras.
I stood in a shack constructed of metal, wood remnants, bed sheets and tarps, a shack barely larger than my bathroom, a shack with a dirt floor and no plumbing that was home to five human beings.
I witnessed nearly 100 people wait outside in the broiling sun for hours to receive basic medical care.
I handed dozens of mothers deworming tablets for their children, knowing that poor sanitation virtually guarantees the parasites will be back before long to wreak havoc in their digestive systems.
I jump-roped, sang songs and played tag with dozens of laughing, smiling, exuberant kids who will likely not have the opportunity to continue their education beyond elementary school.
The reality is that my pet dog enjoys a more comfortable, secure existence than most of the men, women and children I met in Honduras. The animal who lives in my house and has her own bed, her own vet, her own toys and a steady supply of food, clean water and medicine has better healthcare, better nutrition and better living circumstances than most of the human beings I met during my eight days in Honduras.
I think sometimes we rewrite hard stories into more palatable versions simply so we can more easily justify our own privilege and comfort in the face of global poverty and economic inequality. But the truth is, whitewashing reality into an idyllic, romanticized half-truth is not only irresponsible, it’s also deeply disrespectful to the people who live that reality every day.
I don’t claim to have the solution to global poverty and economic inequality. Honestly, it all feels more daunting than ever, and I have no idea what my small role in the great scheme of things is or should be. But I do know this: we can start by telling not the story we wish were true, or the story that relieves us of responsibility, or the story that makes us more comfortable, but by telling the whole, unvarnished truth.