Before my trip to Cuba in May 2016, I was in a bad place. A lot was going on at work, and my family was particularly vocal about their own stresses. As you all know, I suffer from anxiety and depression. And during times like these, it can be hard not to focus on the hardships.
I learned long ago that it’s how you handle these hardships that really matters, but creating something good out of hardship is much easier said than done. Too often, in the midst of my hardships, I struggle to get out and take the next step forward.
Over the past couple years while I worked at a church, I tried to practice giving over my troubles to God when I can’t handle them. Even when my faith waivered, I still worked to give up my problems to the “universe” or a higher power instead of dwelling on them myself. But sometimes it seemed impossible.
When I traveled to Cuba on a mission trip, I discovered (or really reaffirmed) that everyone, no matter where they live, has hardships. Whether it’s illness, loss, addiction, natural disaster, or political problems, we all go through something. It’s a part of life. But I also saw some things that changed my whole view on these life struggles – that showed me, without a doubt, that through struggle and hardship one can create goodness and love.
In the villages of Cuba, I saw people living in wooden shacks that would hardly be considered tree houses in America. Their “homes” crumbled around them as they washed their clothes with a hose from outside. But still they spent their days smiling and giving thanks to God.
I heard stories from our group leader who had grown up in Cuba and left when the revolution started to get bad. I heard about the day that the government told everyone to bring 250 dollars to exchange for the new currency, leaving everyone with the same amount of wealth. I heard about how they told all the families that they could only own one home in all of Cuba. In the process, our leader lost two homes and all possessions inside.
I heard about his mother who was a teacher in Cuba. About how one day, party officials came into her classroom to speak to her students. They told the young children to put their heads down on their desks and pray for Jesus to give them candy. Then they told them to lift their heads. “What do you see?” they asked. There was nothing on the desks. Then they told the children to try again, but this time to ask Fidel for candy. While their heads were down, the party officials walked around the classroom, placing candy on all of the desks. When the students lifted their heads and saw the candy, the officials said, “Now do you see what Fidel can do for you?”
I heard about how our group leader felt called to return to Cuba decades after leaving and what destruction and poverty he saw in his home country. And then, almost 20 years after his first return, I saw in person just how many people he blessed by facing his past and the hardships he worked so hard to escape.
I spoke with a young man about his trouble with alcohol. About how young people in Cuba who can’t find work often spend their time and money at bars. They get in fights and are sometimes sent to jail, a torturous place in Cuba. I spoke with this man about how one night, while drinking at the bar, he heard music coming from the church across the street. About how he wandered over and found a new home—a home he may not have found were it not for the struggles he faced.
I listened as the family we were helping spoke about the food situation in Cuba. About how families were given some rice, grain, oil, sugar, salt, coffee, and matches each month. About how each child was given milk only until they were 8-years-old. And how after that, families were expected to pay $50 for milk for their children when they only received $25 each month. All fish on this island was exported out to make more money for the country. And yet, I heard these stories over feasts of chicken and pork, rice and beans, fresh fruits and vegetables—all provided with love from the Cuban people who struggled to feed themselves most days.
From these stories and many more, I realized that it is possible to thrive through dark times. That there is good that can come by giving your worries over to a higher power and having faith in humankind.
On the first day in Cuba, one of our group members told us to keep our hearts open for the unexpected. The unexpected I found was that there really, truly can be blessings that come out of hardship.
That no matter what we go through, whether it be poverty or mental illness or something else, there can be good to come out of it.
While in Cuba, I stumbled across a devotion that stuck with me: “What we may see as ruins, God sees as building blocks for lives greater than we could imagine for ourselves. As we shift our focus from our surroundings to God’s presence, God will redeem and rebuild our lives.”
You don’t have to believe in God or be religious to rebuild your life. If you can shift your focus, even the hardest things in life can create good in the world. I challenge you to put your hardships in someone else’s hands, to keep your eyes open for the blessings that can come from these challenges, and to remember those in the world who may be struggling too.
If you live in the D.C. area and are interested in traveling to Cuba, let me know. I can put you in touch with the right people.