Simple joys

The children of Asia’s Hope continue to astonish me.

I’ve fallen way behind on posting about all the amazing things we’ve done in the past couple weeks. In additional to exploring Phnom Penh, we spent a few days traveling to Siem Reap and Battambang. We’ve shopped in colorful, crowded markets and eaten incredible food. We rode ATVs through rice paddies and took a bamboo train out into the rural countryside. We hiked through the ruins of ancient temples and sipped mango shakes and Mai Tais at modern rooftop bars. We visited the National Museum and the Killing Fields – learning more about this beautiful country and its history and culture. The Kingdom of Cambodia is rich and vibrant, and it has been wonderful to spend time getting to know this place and its people. I want to capture my impressions of all of these things, and there will likely be many more posts to come, even after I am home.

But none of the adventures and experiences can compare to the joy of simply being in the presence of our Cambodian family at Asia's Hope.

These children are incredible. I have never encountered so much love and kindness. I have never received so many hugs. My hands have been held, my hair has been braided, my neck and shoulders have been massaged by tiny fingers. To the little ones, I have become a human climbing post. For the older ones, my shoulders have become a place to rest their heads. 

Despite their difficult backgrounds and despite the overwhelming odds that were once stacked against them, these are quite possibly the happiest children I have ever known. Their smiles radiate pure joy. And this joy exists despite the fact that they own very few material possessions. It’s proof positive that money does not buy happiness and that the latest and greatest toys and shiny new gadgets are unnecessary and, perhaps, actually get in the way of what really matters.

The lack of sophisticated toys drives their imagination and creativity. A group of us stood in a circle the other day simply hitting and kicking a ball around to one another for an hour full of laughter. One of the most fun games we’ve played involves only a bottle full of rocks and a couple of blindfolds. A simple rope becomes both a jump rope game and a huge tug-of-war. Sticks and rocks become the pieces to invented board games. And, of course, dancing, jumping, running and chasing each other require no props at all. But the squeals of delight they produce are priceless.

There’s no screen time for these kids. No television, no iPad, no video games. Yet not once have I heard any child complain, “I’m bored.” And there’s also no bickering about who got more time with the fancy new toy. In fact, there’s no bickering or complaining at all. What little they do have, they cheerfully share. They support each other, the older children guiding and helping the younger ones, with no prompting at all from their parents. They value each other and their relationships over their possessions, giving them family roots and a foundation that nothing can ever take away.

I’ve been dabbling lately in downsizing – minimizing my possessions and clearing the clutter from my life. I’ve recently moved to a much smaller place and significantly reduced the volume of my stuff. It’s simpler, it’s more affordable, and it frees up my time and mental energy for other things. It has even allowed me to remain mostly self-employed this past year, affording me the opportunity to do things like take a three-week trip to Cambodia. But seeing the way these families live reminds me how little I actually need to live a joyful, fulfilling life, and I realize there’s still a lot of excess that could be trimmed from my world.  

Stuff is not inherently bad. But anything that is not useful to us or does not bring us joy only serves to weigh us down. When the excess is pared away, we’re left with the core of what matters – people and relationships. Experiences are worth far more than things. Memories outlast material goods. And apparently all you really need to have a memorable evening is a big open space to run around in and a handful of your favorite people.

Thanks to some generous donations from friends and family members, we’ve been able to treat the children to a couple outings and a party while we’ve been here. We also brought some craft and art supplies. Those and a couple card games have been perfect for rainy afternoons. But most of our days together have not cost a dime, and those have been just as fun, if not more so, than the days we went out. There’s no better feeling than getting to the end of an evening tired but exhilarated, sweaty and grimy from playing, with a belly aching from laughter and a heart bursting with love.