I have recently been struck by how susceptible my attitude is to being influenced by my environment. This sounds obvious—almost tautological—but let me explain a bit about the kind of influences I am thinking of.
As I left my home and headed to work this morning, my mind was fully occupied going over a list of issues that needed to be taken care of. On this particular day, most of them involved trying to get officials to give permits they were hesitant to grant. We had been working on most of these issues for awhile, and the negotiations were becoming a bit strained. Contemplating how to resolve these problems, I was in many ways reacting against what I experienced as hostility and a lack of welcome from the official bureaucracy. The country I have given so much to serve doesn't seem to want our help! I could feel the bile rising.
After only a few minutes, I spied a dead dog lying by the side of our alley. Combined with the odor of raw sewage that is so common in urban China, and the dust and filth of the road construction project just ahead, I felt the environment around me pushing me away. My reaction to this kind of "hostility" from the neighborhood where I live was visceral, and also far from positive.
Standing on the bus headed towards my office, I noticed the ubiquitous bus TV broadcasting a story about a recent traffic accident. As I watched, the program showed graphic footage of these two vehicles on the highway colliding and then somersaulting over the barriers in a whirl of crunching glass and shattering metal. And then they showed it again. And again. And again.
Arriving at the office, I was informed that a local individual who had benefited from our services in the past was being pressured by his family to take legal action against us (he had unwisely entered into some financial debts that were too burdensome, and foreigners are always perceived to have deep pockets). His words—and in particular the words of his family—were deeply hurtful, and challenged many of our motivations for being here. If those we served were not appreciative, then why bother serving at all?
As I sat down at my desk I realized that in the twenty some minutes since I left my house—at the very beginning of my day—my thoughts and experiences had conspired to shrivel my heart inside of me. My attitude towards my circumstances and all those around me was shot through with xenophobia as I projected a negative, defensive stance towards my city and by extension the many people who live here. I was mirroring the hostility I felt: "don't come near me! Leave me alone" was written clearly across my face.
For many of us, these kinds of experiences are not uncommon (Traffic jams? Queue jumpers? Smokers?); but they are precisely the kinds of things that can render us ineffective in our efforts to be salt and light in our communities. We need to be on our guard, lest we allow these seemingly mundane influences to harden our hearts or cause us to be bitter towards the very people we've come to serve.