The Meaning of Life in Three Parts

On the other side of the world, fighting jetlag and a little bit of culture shock, I’m surprised not by the differences I see, but the similarities.

Shaun Groves and kid

On this trip, I’m struck with a truth that sticks to my soul: No matter where we go, people are just people, and despite our differences, we have more in common than meets the eye.

We all want essentially the same things in life, and today I saw them more clearly than ever before.

Part 1: A friend to walk with

With expectant eyes, we watch as the pump fills the yellow tanks, neighbors and villagers huddled around to join in the watching. A child has led us here, down the mile-long path she hikes each morning to fetch water for her family.

Walking for water

I try to imagine having to walk farther than across my kitchen for a glass of water, but I can't. The best I can do today is take the journey with her, trying to lighten the load at least for today by carrying a container.

At the well, there is more than dry mouths to be quenched. There is life, the kind that watches your chickens and protects your kids when they wander into someone else’s cassava field.

The kind called community.

African child standing by the well

We head back the way we came and the irony hits me hard.

Carrying these jugs of water, we were hoping to quench a family’s thirst, but as we stop along the way to visit with those who welcome us into their fields and homes, we are the ones who are refreshed.

Part 2: A dream to share

Back at the house, I ask Sam (whom we met yesterday) to show us his shop, and he leads us to a small storefront along the road.

Wess walking into hut

I pepper him with questions: What’s your profit margin on this item? How many of these do you have to sell before you can restock? How are you tracking your expenses?

He answers them all.

So I ask another, one I’m sure he doesn’t know the answer to. After reading hundreds of business books, it’s the question that many say holds the key to success. And how would a man in the middle of the African bush know that?

What's your ultimate goal? How will you know when you succeed?

His answer is immediate. He wants to earn enough money to build a house and send his son to a school with a special needs program. Not only does he know the goal; he understands exactly what it will take to achieve.

Sam in shop

Seeing his conviction, I know it’s not enough for Sam to survive. The human spirit must do more than endure; it must thrive. And the only way to do that, to live fully, is to commit to a cause that is bigger than you, something you can devote yourself to fully.

With admiration, I look at this man, a man who works hard and cares for his family, the best kind of man there is, and I tell him his dream will come true.

Why? Because he believes. Because he understands. Because he wants it — not for himself, but for those he loves.

Is there a nobler cause than to see your dreams not as trophies to be boasted but as blessings to be shared?

Part 3: A place to belong

A little while later, I see how one seemingly small choice can have a ripple effect halfway around the world.

Adongo Miriam

At first, she is shy. But with the help of a translator and some ridiculous gestures on my part, Miriam finally cracks a smile. We have only been sponsoring her a month, so we are just getting to know each other.

She loves coming to the center, because she learns many things, like Bible stories and songs, even a few games she tries to explain but I don’t quite understand.

Here, she belongs.

Hula Hooping

We talk and the children swarm around us, laughing at my attempts to speak the language. Hula hoops swing in circles around necks, and half-deflated soccer balls roll across the distant field.

The air is bubbling with hope.

We all need a place like this, somewhere to belong and dream, where we can be who we are and someday might become.

And in this way, places are more than locations; they’re where we find the love we need.

Places quote

She wants to be a nurse when she grows up. I tell her she must keep going to school, that she cannot drop out as some do at a certain age. And then I decide to make a deal.

“Miriam, will you promise me something? Will you keep going to school so that someday you can be come a nurse?”

She thinks, then nods, “Mmh.”

“Okay. And I will promise to keep sponsoring you — until you become a nurse.”

I try to not make it sound like an ultimatum — it’s not. Our support is unconditional, but I want her to know someone is watching her, paying attention to what she does, and dreaming her dreams along with her.

Jeff and Miriam

As we shake hands, there is a sense of commitment, a bond we’ve made to each other that neither wants to break. I feel the weight of the words as we smile, hug, and say goodbye.

And now, I see the whole picture.

“What we do,” Wess tells me, “goes beyond sponsorships. That’s just the beginning. What really makes a difference in a child’s life is your involvement. The letters you write and gifts you send will change lives.”

My wife and I make monthly contributions to Miriam, but the gift is not the money. It’s the relationship. The blessing wasn’t the check we mailed; it was the chance to be a part of her life.

The hope you can't escape

The word hope gets used so often it can come off as cliche. I wish there were a better word to describe today, but I haven’t found it.

Christine washing

Hope is intoxicating in what it makes possible. And in Africa, it seems more tangible than just about anywhere else in the world. This place is a picture of what could be, a fantasy that comes true a little more every day.

Here, hope lures you into its grip and won’t let you go until you are changed.

It grabbed hold of me today, and I hope it gets you too, pointing you to the possibility of another world, reminding you of the important things:

  1. That we all need someone with whom to share the journey, and sometimes burdens, of life.
  2. cause will carry us further than any competitive spirit could.
  3. Without a place to belong, we will always be searching for our identity.

And may you, too, be transformed in the process.

African path

More from our group in Uganda

To change a life, and I mean yours, go sponsor a child with Compassion and see what a difference it makes.

What's the meaning of life to you? And what questions do you have about our trip? Share in the comments.

Photos by Mike Varel.