It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m standing at the sink trying to do the dishes because I don’t want to leave too many for Mama Velo the next day, and Elliot’s refusing to play outside. He pulls up a chair next to me at the sink and I find myself saying, “No, you can’t throw that mug; please don’t tip water over me; sorry, you can’t drink from the tap mate, you’ll get sick; no don’t throw that either; I just washed that!; why don’t you play with this instead?; I didn’t mean pour it all over me!; don’t put your feet up on the bench; sorry, the washing up water is off limits for drinking as well; Argh! Why can’t you just stay still?”
I feel my internal temperature rising and I know this impatience is not normal for me or called for. I also know that if I left the dishes and went to play with him as countless articles on the internet implore mothers to do, he’d focus and we’d have a lovely time. But I don’t. I call Arthur from where he’s lighting the rubbish fire and ask him if he can take Elliot for the last half hour before dinner. Of course he does; he always does. Elliot bellows ‘Mama!’ as Arthur takes him outside and I feel awful, but I shut the door anyway and the tantrum dies down quickly.
Then I hear the worship music playing in the background, it’s Hillsong’s ‘Cornerstone’, and I think, how can I sing this? What do words matter if worship is also not actions? Don’t I pray every morning, ‘help me to be patient when others need it, not just when it suits me’? I could have been more patient or changed the activity we were doing. This feeling of stress is of my own design. So I self-reprimand: ‘You needed to do better; this is not how a person full of the Spirit acts; you cannot sing one thing when you have just done another.’ I feel it’s a time for repentance before God and forgiveness, but my instinct and preference is to castigate myself. I feel like it takes more energy to come to God to be restored than what it does to hate myself.
And it’s energy that I’ve been missing. ‘Why are my reserves so depleted?’ I ask myself. I’ve heard that stress is cumulative, so I think about what has happened in the last year. You know, the part where we moved countries, started learning a new language and began trying to navigate a completely different culture. The part where we’ve felt like half-people and haven’t known how to be whole. The part where we’ve felt both guilty for being rich and a sense of deprivation. The part where we’ve been each other’s only friend because we’re still building relationships in Tanzania, and though Skype is fantastic to talk to people in Australia and we’ve been thankful for it, it can only offer a half-real encounter.
And I think about what had happened in the last few months before this incident. How we’d had two dead computers (one replaced, one sent back to Australia to be repaired), a car accident, car repairs that take twice as long as they would in Australia and are twice the price and unreliable anyway, a withdrawal limit on our bank card which is fine except when you can’t buy tomatoes because you’re paying for computers and car repairs, a faulty oven, an exploding gas line in the kitchen, a damaged water filter. The power was off 8am-7pm most days, though our water issues seemed to have resolved for the moment. There’s always a dimension of guilt to feeling frustrated about all this because these are issues that only wealthy people have.
Of course, we were in need of a holiday, but the thought of planning one and travelling somewhere was paralysing, and once you add anxieties about money, it feels like a Catch-22 – the thing you need to do to take care of yourself, but which you can’t handle the thought of.
And this is the world we all live in, isn’t it?
It’s a world in which it’s too simple to boil down one moment in the kitchen with a toddler to impatience or sinfulness.
It’s a world where personal failure meets an assault of external pressures.
It’s a world in which spiritual vitality is about rest, not just repentance.
It’s a world in which the promise of forgiveness must be accompanied by the promise of a world made new.
It’s a world in which grace needs to be relentless in the face of darkness and a sense that God is far away.
It’s a world in which when I fail him, I need to sing that he is Lord anyway, because that might be restorative.
It’s a world in which the toddler who comes running into my arms with a joyful ‘mama!’ half an hour later is a great reminder that God’s acceptance is total.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.