Many will be familiar with the English saying “the grass is always greener on the other side [of the hill]”. The phrase means that people in a given situation will always long for the benefits of a different one – for instance, students wish for the financial freedom of working life while graduates miss the freedom from responsibility which marks the student life. It has been said that this perpetual dissatisfaction with our own state in life is one of the rotten fruits of Original Sin, a fault which satan uses us to turn us against our own progression towards our true fulfillment in God. He achieves this by shifting our focus away from the glories of the destination (the eternal patria, heaven) and focussing instead on complaints about our conditions on the road – how we don’t have enough rest, enough money, enough comforts, enough status, respect, freedom, prestige. By constantly bringing to our minds the things we would wish improved, satan leads us blindfolded away from the recognition of all the good that we have, and for which God is deserving of our unceasing thanks.
My problem right now is precisely this. In 2001 I came to Japan for three weeks as a 16 year old high school exchange student. I had an absolutely fabulous time, and resolved to return. Eight years later I am here, a 23 year old university exchange student. The teenage dream is fulfilled, against all probability and merit (given my financial and academic performance over the years). Over just the past six weeks I have gained so much insight into matters cultural, spiritual, and interior that I can’t imagine would be possible back home. What an astounding gift!
And yet, I am pining for my life back home. I miss having fewer classes, I miss having my food made for me instead of having to rely on my pathetically limited skills. I miss above all the Catholic milieu of Sydney – being surrounded by friends with whom I shared my most precious gift, the Catholic faith. I miss being able to exercise the very heights of my meagre intellectual capacity exploring the fundamentals of philosophy, theology, ethics, politics. I miss the full sacramental life – priest friends everywhere, offering the Holy Mass each day, confession readily available – in confessionals! Eucharistic adoration in beautifully constructed church ædifices (particularly our spectacular cathedral in Sydney).
How should I approach this? Clearly the grass appears to me greener in Sydney right now, but will I be so happy once I return? Given the apparent road of my life (as I can currently see it), I may never come back to Japan at all. The friends I make here, the glorious mountains and pristine waters, the simple experience of sustaining a spark of the Catholic faith in mission territory (though my work of prayer is a mere speck compared to the heroic priests and religious lifting their own lives to the altar every day that they spend here). How much more will I value these on my return, and long for them?
I mentioned to a dear friend that the purpose of this trip is not so much to consolidate my proficiency in Japanese, or to learn the Japanese culture for some indeterminate future “career”. These are the goals that my university has set, and I plan to fulfill them. Nonetheless, I believe the reason Our Lord put me here despite all worldly impediments is to teach me an eternal lesson. Here in Japan, I must learn to be alone. I must learn to sustain myself without the (social) help of my friends, beautiful churches, and familiar company. Japan is the most technologically advanced country on this half of the world, and to all appearances my physical separation is nullified by digital communications. Nevertheless, I think that if I don’t learn at least a little detachment, a little evangelical poverty, my future development will be stunted (or at least held back). How can I learn to be still with God if I keep finding ways to fill my time?