Matthew 6:25-34, Philippians 4:6-7
and Another Voice: “The Book of Joy”, Dalai Lama
by Rev. Don Ludwig, January 5, 2020
My family have decided to move – to Costa Rica! Kathy and I have been there three times – each time brings something new – this time we were able to share the experience with Ciera and Tony. We love living the Pura Vida life!
Our vacation did not start off well. When we landed in San Jose, after traveling for 24 hours via air and a layover with family in Phoenix for 10 hours, virtually no sleep on the plane, we were exhausted. The local car rental agency calling themselves NU only had one compact manual transmission HIJITSU available (whoever heard of a HIJITSU) even though we had clearly reserved a mid-size automatic SUV. After some choice words, we reluctantly just accepted the car, filled out the paperwork for basic insurance, since the comprehensive insurance was going to run well over $1,000.00 and we were on our way.
After a couple of hours of driving, we stopped for lunch – that is where the tragedy happened: in finding a parking spot on a hill, I mistakenly put the car in first gear instead of reverse and ran straight into a TREE, involving much damage to the bumper and hood of the car. I estimated the damage would be well over $5000.00. I immediately starting passing the blame for this incident– none of which was directed at me. I was distraught, to put it mildly. If we would have been given an automatic instead of a manual – if we just went to the Condo first, why didn’t Kathy tell me to get the comprehensive insurance?… Kathy and the kids were trying to calm me down, when all of the sudden it happened – out of nowhere – I burst out laughing. I honestly don’t know where the hilarity came from – perhaps the aura of Costa Rican philosophy – perhaps being sleep deprived and hungry – perhaps knowing that the kids were watching my reaction – but it just seemed so unimportant in the scheme of things. As the saying goes, it is just money!
Mutuality is at the core of Pura Vida
Mutuality. That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of Costa Rica. Not just because life there is easy and everyone gets along, but because the Costa Ricans don’t take life too seriously and always remember that while life is full of ups and downs – what matters the most is Pura Vida: which translates to “pure life.” Pura Vida is how Costa Ricans and ex-pats say hello, goodbye, or even describe one another. Over the years of visiting Costa Rica, this philosophy in many ways has been a constant reminder to me of how temporal life is – and how we can quickly become inundated with meaningless trivialities and lose sight of our inner core – how we can become mired in selfish pursuits and forsake others.
Let me share a bit of cultural background here. For those that do not know, Costa Rica went through a very big change almost 70 years ago, and things have never been the same since. In 1948 there was a revolution that lasted only 40 days under the National Liberation Army led by Jose Figueres. More than 2,000 people died in the bloodiest civil war in Costa Rican history since its declaration as an independent nation. On the first of December in 1948, the then President of Costa Rica, Jose Figueres, declared the end of the military spirit in his country. This military abolition was added to the Costa Rican Constitution in 1949.
As my family explored the beautiful country of Costa Rica, enjoying the lush landscapes and encountering scores of happy people, I couldn’t help but think about how much the end of their military in 1949 has impacted their lives. Though there were certainly political reasons for this decision, there was also a conscious decision made to improve the lives of those that live in Costa Rica. With an active military, the country was spending money on guns and supplies that could be used for education and culture. And that is exactly what happened! During the ceremony where he announced the abolishment of the military, Figueres also dedicated the former military barracks to a future committed to culture, symbolized by handing the keys to the minister of education.
The happy people that I encounter during my travels through Costa Rica are happy because of their commitment to mutuality. They have an improved standard of living with strong education and medicine budgets. Because Costa Rica does not fund a military, they are able to fund public universities and hospitals. The life expectancy for Costa Rica residents has increased and the country has a literacy rate of 96%. All that education and emphasis on health gives residents, and visitors, more chances to enjoy their natural, beautiful surroundings and invest their time into what matters the most – people and natural resources.
Pura Vida is Alive in each of us
Mother Theresa once said, “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”. I think it will serve us well to consider Costa Rica’s philosophy of Pura Vida and their commitment to mutuality in all things. I am reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about mutuality and hope:
You are me, and I am you.
Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.
I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.
I support you;
you support me.
I am in this world to offer you peace;
you are in this world to bring me joy.
Pura Vida is alive in each and every one of us – when we cultivate a worry-free self to offer peace to one another. Mutuality is the means for us to bring Pura Vida to each other and find Pura Vida in ourselves. As we begin another year, another decade, another chapter in our life together as a church, I want us to consider ways we can incorporate the philosophy of Pura Vida and its commitment to mutuality in our everyday lives.
Having an Attitude of Gratitude
First, Pura Vida involves approaching the world with an unwavering attitude of gratitude. After speaking with several Ticos (Costa Ricans), I understand Pura Vida is a way of seeing the world: with simplicity, no worries, optimism, and positivity. Everything is possible. It’s being happy with where you are at in the present moment and feeling life as precious for exactly what it has served you. Costa Ricans make do with what they have, and not only that, they strive to make it beautiful. For them, it is possible to be happy while also trying to better yourself.
This outlook has made Ticos the type of people who will take their shirt off their back to help you, who value time infinitely more than money, and cherish precious moments of shared experience — even with strangers. I cannot tell you how many times people took the time to greet us, have genuine conversations, and even invited us to join them to watch the sunset.
I am reminded of a story about a wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But, a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said. ‘I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.’
When I think of Pura Vida and the Tikas – I think of this story. So often we focus on issues of security and material wealth and pursuits – when the greatest gift we have is in us. Mutuality is about sharing that gift. Henri Nouwen defines mutuality as the offer of a space where “change can take place”, a space where “the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy – it can only be offered by those who have found the center of their lives in their own hearts…”
Recognizing Nature as an essential part of our Well-Being
Secondly, Pura Vida also requires us to recognize that nature is an essential part of our well-being. Costa Rica has been consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries on earth, and for good reason. In addition to having a relatively stable economy (it’s often referred to as the “Switzerland of Latin America”) and being world leaders in sustainability and conservation, Costa Rica is geographically stunning. The country has enviable lush green areas and a vast amount of wildlife, as it just so happens to contain almost 6% of the world’s biodiversity.
Part of the Pura Vida philosophy entails a connection to the Earth and nature. Costa Ricans have a unique appreciation for nature, and it shows in the many ways they’re consistently involved with it: surfing in the morning, going to the beach to watch the sunset, taking walks or riding horses through the forest, and so on.
Not only that, many Ticos and local businesses are hyper-conscious of the effects that the environment has on the community, so they work together to protect and preserve its balance. Our guide, Edwardo, who took us on a hike through Manuel Antonio State park, helping us to see the sloths and monkeys and various animals of the forest – told us, “what you do the Earth, you do to yourself.” This awareness of the environment is unparalleled to other places I have visited. No wonder they live happier, healthier, and longer lives than most of the world! In Costa Rica, I find myself more present in the moment and enjoying the simplicity of life, and that indeed begins with understanding the influence that nature has on me.
Trusting your Horse
And finally, Pura Vida involves learning to trust in something bigger than yourself. We took a horseback riding excursion on our trip. Our guide was named Henry – a 19-year-old college student who was studying to be a lawyer. Henry described the personality of each of our horses. Believe it or not, Ciera was paired with a horse named “Tequila” with a personality known as the “fiesty one”. For those of you that know Ciera, you know how fitting that pairing was. My horse’s personality was described as “the responsible one”. I do not know if that was as much fitting to my own personality as it was so appreciated because of my nervousness on horses!
Our 2-hour trek took us on a 5-mile loop, up and back down a mountainside with magical views of the ocean and the lush green forest hills. Henry could see how nervous I was to be riding – especially up and down certain parts of the seemingly treacherous mountainside, and had me ride just behind him. When we would come to tricky parts of the terrain, Henry would say to me “Trust your Horse, Don. He will take care of you!” Those words saved me from having a nervous breakdown! “Trust your Horse.” They are not only comforting words but a reminder that I was not alone – that letting go and relaxing is the secret to a pure life. Needless to say, those words have become a mantra to our entire family. Trust your Horse!
Know That You Get to Create Your own Pura Vida
When we arrived at the airport and returned the car, we discovered that the damage was only $500, not $5000.00 – which I paid gladly! I know that there will be many more trees that I crash into in my life, but knowing Pura Vida, has centered me and reminded me to live in the moment and appreciate the people around me – to slow down enough to consider nature in my decision making and to trust my horse. Although I received some beautiful answers when I asked Tikos what Pura Vida meant to them, I decided to make my own definition of what it means to me.
My Pura Vida means serendipitously making friends with strangers in another country or racial group or cultural heritage, who instantly invite me to be a part of their world. It is watching a blood orange sun plop into the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by human beings who shine from an equally radiant light.
My Pura Vida is being a part of the community of Southminster – knowing that people here care about me and my family. Knowing that I do not have to do it all – there is grace when I make mistakes – together we make the whole. My Pura Vida recognizes that I have everything I need in my life right now. I just have to remember it, to see it, to allow myself to feel it and be it! It is trusting my horse.
Pura Vida is laughing with my family until my cheeks hurt. Its seeing Ciera and Tony grow up to be respectful and responsible human beings who are committed to social justice and equity. It’s manifested in the conversations where I speak and know the person I am giving my words to is listening. It’s giving my time, attention, and space to someone who reciprocates it. It’s living life, at its purest, at its simplest, with people who matter.
That is my Pura Vida. What is yours?