Welcome to Ryley Writes, a collection of thoughts, stories, and work from deep in the heart of Texas.

Once You Know

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Something that I didn't mention in my last post, but was on my mind the entire time, was the awareness that a beautiful vacation for me rubbed up against hard realities for others.

Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination, and from the time we touched down in Tambor, it was easy to see why. Our bus ride from the tiny airport to the beaches of Santa Teresa wound through green farmland and small towns bursting with life and color. It was gorgeous country, aesthetically, and colorful, postage-stamp-sized houses looked rustic — picturesque, even! — as we drove by.

The problem, of course, is that scrap-metal house tied together with string is still standing there after I've snapped my photo and my bus has long passed through. It's not a postcard, and it's not decor. A family lives inside it — right now, always — with a roof that does not shield from rain and dirt floors that turn to mud when it comes.

Our guest houses were tended by housekeepers and groundsmen who lived nearby in their own, shall we say, more modest accommodations. Restaurants and businesses were staffed by locals notably missing from beachfront property dwellers. ("It's crazy how many more people there seem to be around here than there are houses!" I heard one woman innocently remark. That's because there are more people than houses, and they can't afford the ones that are here.)

As far as the third world goes, of course, there are certainly worse places than Costa Rica. But once you know, you know — you know?

You can't unlearn the nuances of a culture or the signs of poverty once you've rubbed shoulders with it. The time I spent in missions settings, especially in Latin America, makes it impossible for me to visit without noticing; and my beliefs make it impossible to notice without acknowledging.

At one point during the course of our trip I found myself seated near the front of a vehicle taxiing us to dinner. The only Spanish speaker present (however miserably rusty), I tried making conversation with the driver; asking his name, where he was from, and about the area.

He gave clipped, breezy answers at first, clearly not in a friends-making mood. We extroverts are an aggressively fun (!!!) and persistent bunch, though, so I gave it one last shot, asking about his family.

His eyes flickered, piercing the customer-service shield for a moment, and he looked at me wearily.

With the the quickest nod of the head, he indicated the world outside the vehicle: the setting sun and the breakers reflecting it, the towering trees and strolling tourists.

"Do you really want to know?" he asked.

He asked before answering, just to be sure. Because once you know, you know.

John 8:32 says, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

It's talking about the Gospel, and yes, totally — the truth will set you free. But even in that context, and definitely in others, I think before the truth sets you free, the truth just makes you uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable happens when my perception and reality refuse to line up.

The starting point of the whole Jesus thing is the world, and every individual in it, being broken beyond self-repair. It needs saving; we need help. And humans, almost universally, do not perceive ourselves as needing help. So the truth will set us free, no doubt; but not until we've endured the dismantling of what we thought or wished to be reality.

The first world and the third world coexist with no clear or plausible resolution this side of Heaven. The truth will set us free inasmuch as we will no longer be living a delusion; but it will also probably interfere with our beach vacation, and our delusion is happy and fun!

Do I really want to know about my taxi driver's family, his life? Or do I really just want him to uphold the beach escape illusion and drop me off for some sushi?

Do I really want to know, or do I really just want to pretend?

I'm not saying we can't or shouldn't enjoy life; that our response to the third world should be to abandon the first entirely. There is a middle ground; a place where we steward what we've been given well, rather than hoarding or wasting it.

I have no idea where it is, mind you. It's a fine line — and not even a straight one, I don't think. It might twist and curve according to situation, winding its way around. More and better people than I have dedicated themselves to trying to figure it out, this puzzle with pieces that just don't match up.

What I do know is that the discrepancy exists, and just because I cannot fix it doesn't give me a free pass to bury my head in the sand of my first-world beach.

Yes, I really wanted to know.

Because the truth, for all its discomfort, is at least a meeting place.

I can't know firsthand others' pain from my place of privilege; and to try can be unhelpful and offensive. But that reality is uncomfortable and common to us both, and stepping into truth together may be the closest taste of unity and freedom we get.

The Stack: Summer '16

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