Editor’s note: Bart Roach, owner of Three Rivers Dental in Kennewick and co-founder of the nonprofit Sonrisa Immaculata, returned to the Guatemalan coast in April to bring dental care to the people of El Paredon. It was his fifth trip to the Central American country.
He led a team that included five dentists and 10 volunteers from Washington, Arizona, Denver, Canada, Amsterdam, England, Australia and Guatemala. The team treated more than 400 people, restoring about 800 teeth and extracting more than 250 teeth in 4 1/2 days. Roach also has traveled to Cambodia and Tibet, treating people with little or no access to dental care.
Here, he shares some thoughts about his overseas work.
For some time I have reflected, as I am sure many of you have, on happiness and satisfaction with how we spend our short time on this earth. In this context, I have grappled with the paradox that we are one of the most medicated societies in the world, despite the creature comforts we enjoy — and so often take for granted — as citizens of the United States.
Three trips ago to the Guatemalan highlands, I sat in conversation with Dr. Jose Miguel as we made our way along the Pan-American highway toward the town of Nahualá. I had seen, many times over, that — despite the poverty, lack of opportunity, fatality and ostensible justification for sadness — the people of Guatemala were not sad. They are quick to smile, through a toothache; quick to share, despite their poverty; quick to engage one another, despite being “strangers.”
Reflecting on this difference in cultural dispositions, I asked the good doctor, “How often do you give pills to people for depression?” At first, he did not even understand the question. After explaining the context in my second language, Dr. Jose eventually said, “Oh no, Bartolome, never. Sometimes you are happy, sometimes sad — that is part of life.”
I have continued to reflect on this dynamic in our culture, this tendency toward prolonged sadness, and what it is about countries like Guatemala, Cambodia and Tibet that distinguishes them from the U.S.
They are quick to smile, through a toothache; quick to share, despite their poverty; quick to engage one another, despite being ‘strangers.’
I mean, these are all societies with a recent history of profound sadness, yet they are categorically cheerful. Granted, the source of an individual’s unsettled spirit stems from a number of causes, but two that seem to come so often to the fore are connection and expectation. In our media-saturated environment, we are sold ideas about what is going to make us happy: the upgraded cellphone, ever-changing $200 jeans, a newer house, city life, the posh Icelandic vacation.
We expect that when we finally acquire these things, we will be satisfied, accepted and happy. That is our first-world fallacy, and we know it. What we are really searching for are human connections that our culture of exalted individualism so often prevents us from making.
In the Third World, people interact. They jam into chicken buses and unapologetically sweat and breathe each others’ air. They know the people in their communities and make light fun of each other constantly, without fear of hurting feelings, much less a workplace harassment citation. Kids play hard with each other and people share a common experience of community, of struggle, pain, laughter, kinship and creation. As humans we are hard-wired for fellowship. Our Third World brethren are so often materially poor, yet overtly rich in spirit.
Juxtapose the Guatemalan campesino experience to that of a city-dwelling millennial or suburban professional: we wake up and search through a closet full of clothes and get frustrated that we “have nothing to wear.” We leave our apartment only after inserting ear buds to “protect” ourselves from unwanted discussions. We descend from our towers avoiding eye contact with neighbors we recognize but don’t know, escaping to the security of our car. We fight traffic, anxious and frustrated by other commuters, all the while listening to doomsday prophesy from public radio.
Arriving at the office, we ride a lift instead of stairs, again not daring to engage our coworkers beyond the most topical admission of their existence, for fear of saying the wrong thing and offending another’s sensibilities.
We sit insular in our cubicles staring at a screen (or three) for eight hours. We punch out, swim back upstream to our tower to “relax” in front of another screen while eating a meal we had no hand in producing. Then, as we scroll through unenticing Netflix suggestions we wonder, “Why on Earth am I so unhappy? Maybe I need that trip to Iceland to reconnect...”
Community. Connection. Production. Endorphin. Fresh air. Mirth. Serotonin. Those key elements of a life well-lived that our system so often prevent us from experiencing. That is the difference between the blessed poor of the Third World, and the woeful poor-of-spirit of the first. They still cut firewood and play with kids. They believe in magic. They lend a hand to build things to make their community better. They spend their days rubbing elbows, growing and hawking vegetables, cooking and sharing and hoping they will make enough money to buy some minutes so they can chat with their U.S. kin and hear about the “good life of plenty” north of the border.
In recent months, I have had the opportunity to talk to churches, scout troops, high school students and well-heeled professionals about why I volunteer there.
The answer is not so much that they need me, but that I need them. I am welcomed into their community, into their laughter, their sharing of humble meals. I continue to go because I am part of a gracious dynamic of giving and receiving gifts of self, which reinforces our health and human dignity at the same time.
This makes me happy, and makes me feel that for the time being, my time is being spent well.