• Kat Peters

Si Dios quiere / God willing

Updated: Jul 26

I have learned to accept some uncertainty, but can it all be chalked up to God’s will?

Our family vacationed “out West” for a couple of weeks this summer. We spent time with family in South Dakota, and also did a little extra adventure in Yellowstone National Park and Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming.

Of course, one of the highlights was seeing the geyser called Old Faithful. It is called this because its eruptions of steam and water are predictable. There is a number you can call to get the next estimated eruption time, and it is also posted on signs near the visitor’s center.

I had heard that Old Faithful was maybe less faithful, or less impressive these days. I don’t know where I heard that rumor, because it turned out to not really be true. Regardless, I was not expecting to actually see Old Faithful erupt when we parked our car and walked over to the geyser. Many people were standing around in the viewing area, next to the railings, along the boardwalk and in the gravel next to the boardwalks. Out of curiosity, I called the prediction number on my phone, and the recording said, “Old Faithful is predicted to erupt at 2:00 PM, give or take 10 minutes.” I looked at my watch. 2 PM on the dot.

“Oh, wow,” I said, excitedly. “We’re going to get to see it erupt!”

Soon the geyser, which had been steaming for the few minutes we had already been looking at it, starting to spit a little water. The crowd, thousands of people, started to murmur and hold up their phones, recording. But then the water stopped, and it even seemed that the steam was going away.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “This was probably what I had heard about – the eruption just isn’t very impressive. But at least we saw it!”

But the people didn’t move. We stood around for a few minutes, and at about 2:10 we started walking away. Just then, we heard gasps in the crowd, and turned to see the geyser shooting 150 feet in the air.

It kept erupting for about a whole minute. It was pretty amazing.

Afterwards, we went to the visitor’s center to see about the process for becoming a junior ranger for our kids. When we emerged with our instruction booklet, we saw the sign had been changed to read “Estimated eruption time: 3:46 PM.”

We sat filling out the booklet and then our oldest got to be sworn in as a junior ranger by a passing park ranger. After that we decided to walk around the whole geyser basin area, and we soon realized that we would still be there at the next eruption time. About 10 minutes before 3:46 we sat down on the boardwalk by the “Beehive geyser,” waiting with some other spectators. It was their first time, and by now we felt like experts. “Oh, it’s not going to erupt,” they said. “That little bit of water must have been it.” “Just wait,” I encouraged them. “It will be big.”

Sure enough, at 3:46 PM on the nose, Old Faithful did it again. The water shot 150 feet into the air for a full minute.

It’s actually quite amazing.

I was struck by such a phenomenon, especially after experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic. This was partly because it was the first time in over 15 months that I was in the presence of thousands of other people at one event. Also, after so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, to be able to call a number and get a predicted time for something amazing to happen in nature, and then it actually happens… well, it felt a little shocking.

I was reminded of the talk on Cultural Adjustment that I give to students and other travelers that I have worked with. I show them a chart with different cultural orientations listed on it (see below – it’s pretty close to the Kluckhohn-Strodtbeck Value Orientations Theory). It is a pretty “square” view of the world and has plenty of drawbacks, but I think it does provide useful food for thought about how people and groups of people might see the world differently. Under the category of “relationship between humans and nature” (nature meaning “fate” or “god” or “the universe”), different cultures might feel that humans can control nature, that humans are in harmony with nature, or that humans are subjugated by nature.

The different orientations (on the left) can be divided into 3 different patterns of beliefs and behaviors, according to this theory.

I ask students what might be some examples of things people say or do that might give away their cultural assumptions in these different categories. Under this theme, one phrase that people I love in Latin America say is “Si dios quiere (god willing).” We talk about how Costa Ricans (for example) use this phrase several times a day, to discuss even plans that are set for the following day. “I’ll see you for coffee tomorrow at 3 PM, si dios quiere.” Or for far-off future plans: “I hope to graduate and get a job in medicine, si dios quiere.” The general idea is that things in the future (near and distant) are actually out of my control.

This is an idea that doesn’t sit well with people from my culture: white, middle-class, Midwestern United Statesians. We prefer an Old Faithful-type situation: a predicted time, plus or minus 10 minutes, we see the amazing sight, take our photos and videos, and move on to see the buffalo on the lawn.

I learned to embrace the idea of uncertainty in Latin America, but that doesn’t mean it comes naturally to me. During the pandemic, when child care would get cancelled because of a Covid exposure and I would see two weeks stretch out ahead of me without help with my kids, I could feel very overwhelmed (as did the family with the Covid exposure). Or when grocery store shelves were empty of items I was used to being able to find, I would get a sick feeling in my stomach – my husband had to take over shopping 100% of the time so I wouldn’t trigger my anxiety at the store.

It was strange: I had gone without plenty of items I might have been used to when I lived abroad, and I know that my kids and I will be fine at home, especially now that their dad works from home and is able to help me in a pinch most of the time. Still, my knee-jerk reaction isn’t to calmly say that I will get what I am planning “si dios quiere” during these situations.

I learned some coping skills for that kind of stress, and I know that you have too. Our family’s hiking, exercising, eating well, and trying to rest are such great preventative measures for the side of anxiety that can be helped by physical practice. Spending time with friends (even over virtual methods) is another. I realized that these are some of the tools that Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans are so good at, that I got to experience living there. Prioritizing meals made with healthy and natural ingredients, taking lunch and coffee breaks for rest and conversation with others, leaving work promptly at 5 PM, going to be early and getting up to spend time in the morning sun, and getting preventative health care are all priorities for a lot of people there.

In fact, when I look around at cultures or groups of people who are better at dealing with uncertainty, it’s usually because they have a lot of uncertainty in their lives (practice makes perfect, right?). And those cultures and groups seem to line up with historical realities of oppression, exclusion, or exploitation. Taking special care of oneself and one’s family is a good way of mitigating the potential threats of an uncertain future.

I had been sharing the cultural adjustment table (above) for some years at my workplace in Costa Rica to mostly white middle class students from the US. After a while, however, we began to host programs with increasingly diverse populations of students. When I would ask “What category does your culture fall under?” I started getting different answers than I was used to. Answers that were not the same as mine.

African American students’ comments would sound more like what I expected to hear about Costa Rican culture (further to the left on this chart) than what I expected from the white students (further to the right on the chart).

These moments started to make me question my understanding of cultural difference, or to add another element to it. We can talk more about that in a future post

Here is another way that all of these elements relate: The uncertainty that people in Costa Rica and Latin America (and plenty of other places) feel right now related to Covid, or to any other big and pressing issue, is directly impacted by decisions that we make here in the US. I’ve written about some of those in my posts related to the global food market (about beef and sugar, for example). The World Health Organization has now asked wealthy countries to consider donating vaccines to COVAX, so that other countries can reach the threshold where they can relax masking and social distancing restrictions that so many places in the US no longer need to employ.

In other words, some uncertainties do not depend on God’s will at all, but on the will of people with power to do the right thing.

As we move out of pandemic restrictions in the US, as more people are vaccinated here and around the world, I wonder if we who are used to being comfortable will remember any of our learning about how little control we actually have, or the tools that we have honed for dealing with uncertainty. And I wonder if we will do anything that might be within our power to make life any less uncertain for others.

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