It has been said that comparison is the thief of joy, which makes joy a challenging proposition in a world where comparison is inescapable. It is no wonder that discontentment and restlessness have become hallmarks of a generation that is ever-connected to curated pictures of what’s happening “elsewhere”. And with the reality, or even potential, of better options always in one’s consciousness, it becomes very difficult to be fully present, fully committed, and even moderately content where one actually is.
Kristin Tovar is in Tucson, Arizona. She lives there with her husband and 18 month old son. She loves her city, but that hasn’t always been the case. Her love for Tucson is a cultivated one, born from a conscious effort to reject the discontentment that comes from constantly focusing on “elsewhere”. To change her heart, she developed new eyes, shifting her focus from the good things that are missing in her city to the good things that have been there all along.
The pull of “elsewhere” is strong. Privileged to travel to some of the great cities of the world – Rome,Buenos Aires, San Francisco – Kristin became captivated by what life would be like in a global metropolis.”I loved what bigger cities had to offer as far as culture, events, things to do, etc., and I started to complain that Tucson didn’t have what I wanted,” said Tovar. She remembers a tension building between her and her new husband, as well as with her friends. “I didn’t hide the fact that I didn’t like Tucson, and I talked about it so often that a barista at one of my favorite coffee shops ended up calling me out about it.”
Being called out was a turning point. Tovar recalls that the barista went on a “spiel” about how he had lived in a number of great places, but chooses to live in Tucson. He could articulate the reasons why he appreciated Tucson, and did just that. While the episode did not immediately flood her with appreciation for the city, Kristin was convicted about her own attitude. She decided that she needed to actively choose a different mindset, to cultivate a different heart toward the place God had her.
“I made a decision to find ways to be grateful for where I lived,” said Tovar, “First through taking photos when I saw things around that I appreciated. I wouldn’t say that is what made me love where I live, but it was a good first step. The active practice of gratitude and forcing myself to look for things that I could appreciate around me started to compound; it had a snow ball effect. The more I chose to see, the more I loved and cared for deeply. It took my appreciation from a superficial level to a deeper level where I sought to learn more about my city and my surroundings. I became more curious. I got more involved. It made me seek out opportunities to experience and explore the world around me in a focused way.”
It started with an Instagram account and a hashtag: #whyilovewhereilive. It soon became a full scale movement, manifest in a blog, events, clothing, social media feeds, and so on. Why I love Where I Live- or WILWIL – has now became a galvanizing force in Tucson. It has brought relationships with local artists and leaders, led to collaborative community projects, and provided a connection point for neighbors to come together in ownership and appreciation of their city. Tovar even got to take WILWIL into local elementary schools, encouraging kids to think about and engage their community. Some students even wrote essays about why they loved their neighborhood and then wrote their thoughts on a mural at the school. WILWIL is an evolving effort with new doors and opportunities surfacing all the time. As Tovar says, “I have no idea what’s next!”
At the heart of it, Tovar describes WILWIL as, “A celebration of place. It is the recognition of things that make a place unique and enjoyable. It is choosing to see the good and be grateful for where we live on small and large scales.”
This sort of effort goes well beyond simply living as a tourist in one’s hometown, enjoying the culture and amenities it has to offer. That’s because the novelty of even the most positive aspects of a city eventually wears off. WILWIL is about cultivating appreciation and investment beyond the “vacation phase”. Tovar recalls a friend who had moved to Brooklyn – the kind of city so full of exciting culture that Tovar had once thought it“didn’t take much work to love”. Her friend indeed loved it, for a season. But, “the longer she was there, the more she saw the reality.” And no place is perfect. Struggling with discouragement in the middle of an NYC winter, Tovar’s friend followed the WILWIL example. “She was determined to find something to appreciate about the harsh winter,” Tovar explains. “Standing out in the cold, watching the snow fall around her, she enjoyed a completely calm moment of solitude in a place that’s usually so crowded. When I saw the pictures she took that day, I could just tell. She did it. She accepted everything about her city – the good and the bad.” It was a heart issue. And to change her heart, she developed new eyes.
Now, some might argue that discontentment such as this is a luxury of the privileged who have too many options and no real problems. Millennials struggling to appreciate the places that many in the world would die to live might strike some as the epitome of spoiled consumerism. Such critiques are not lost on Tovar. She is the first to acknowledge that the very real, harsh challenges facing many in the world should not be minimized. “But,” she rightly adds, “comparing circumstances should not lead us to believe that discontentment, lack of recognition for the good things God has provided, and spoiled consumerism are not real problems. Those are real, spiritual problems. It’s dark. It really is.” There will be no change in the world if the people with privilege remain self-absorbed. “We need to be reminded that it is not all about us,” Tovar adds, “that we have been provided for in every way possible, and that God has put us in specific places at specific times. And those places that He puts us in should be brighter than they would be without us. Focusing on discontentment takes us away from being present where we are and diminishes the effect and power of us being a reflection of God in our communities.”
The practice of choosing gratitude should not be confused with willful ignorance or denial of the less rose-colored aspects of a community. Tovar explains the the negative and the positive work hand in hand in a reinforcing cycle. “The more I appreciate my city and the place I live, the more I start to take ownership and become aware of real needs. As I’ve developed a unique and specific gratitude for Tucson, my heart has grown for the people in it and the specific needs of this community. The more my heart grows, the more pride I take in my city and want to see it flourishing in all aspects, that includes tending to real and current needs as well as taking preventative measures to make this a better place in the future and provide, in some cases, before the need arises. My hope with WILWIL is that it sparks that same cycle within others in a way that opens their heart to their city’s real needs. I pray it brings glory to God through helping people choose to celebrate the good, while ultimately cultivating a Christ-like heart that is moved to respond to real problems.”
There are real problems in Tucson. But WIWIL remains primarily focused on recognizing the good in the city and cultivating and appreciation that leads to investment. “Besides,” Tovar explains, “to only focus on the brokenness would do a disservice to the work and character of God who has created and given us every good gift we receive (James 1:17).”
Tovar’s love for her community is a cultivated one. It is the kind of love that requires effort, that goes beyond short-lived infatuation. “I made a decision to find ways to be grateful for where I am,” she said. That gratitude became a higher form of love and a stronger investment in where God had her. Her heart and efforts have now been used by God to plant seeds of renewal in her city. That is a lesson for all, in every sphere of life.
What are Tovar’s ultimate hopes for her community? Perhaps they are best summed up by the phrase that appears under the Tucson skyline on the WILWIL t-shirts: “In Tucson as it is in heaven”.
And all God’s people said, “Amen”.