In the spring of 1996, I traveled with a group of university students to Costa Rica on a "mission trip." As we were planning for the trip, we were informed by the folks in Costa Rica that they really didn't want us to come down there to DO anything. The impression we received was that they were a bit tired of northerners coming south to "fix" things. They had had enough of a sort of superior attitude. What they wanted was the opportunity to show US what they had accomplished, what they could do, what they were providing for us.
When we arrived, we were treated to an amazing week. We saw the national shrine in Cartago. We visited La Selva, a fascinating rain forest. We saw plantations that catered to the Home Depot tastes of Americans. In Puerto LImon (on the Caribbean coast), those who looked carefully got great views of 3-toed sloths. And all during the week we were the recipients of very gracious hospitality -- including an introduction to one of the great treats of Costa Rica: Lizano Salsa.
While we all enjoyed the week, the students were a little disappointed that they didn't get to DO anything. After all, a mission trip is about painting a hospital, or digging a well, or teaching kids. It is NOT about riding in a van, seeing amazing countryside, and being well-fed. THAT sounds more like a vacation. But as we continued interacting with our hosts, we found out that there is great value in being a recipient. We learned of the colonial history of Costa Rica. We learned of their history of peaceful coexistence in a very conflicted area of the world. We learned of their environmental concerns. And we learned that the Ticos (native Costa Ricans) simply loved giving. And we were having a difficult time simply receiving.
I understand that in many cultures of the world, reciprocity is expected. If I receive from you, I am culturally expected to give back. And in our competitive culture, there is almost an unspoken "what I give back should be bigger/greater than what I received." It seemed to me, however, that our hosts in Costa Rica simply wanted to know that their hospitality was appreciated. That was service enough. And the mission trip, although not as we expected, changed us nonetheless.
Gratitude is central to our religious lives. Regardless of tradition, we all recognize that much of what we have is beyond our ability to attain, or beyond our deserving. And we develop rituals of thanksgiving, many of which include "giving back."
But I wonder if our felt need to "return the favor" diminishes our own experience of a gift given us. That is, if we spend so much time deciding how to respond that we miss out on simply enjoying the gift, and the spirit of giving behind it. I wonder what it would look like simply to say "Thank you," to affirm the giver's intention, to validate their pleasure in making me happy. Perhaps not always, but sometimes.
The mission? No mission!
To all of you who've given so much to me . . . Thank you.