February 26, 2008

The Ever-Present Reality

A few weeks back, I rented the movie Notes on a Scandal and was struck by something the elderly spinster character played by Judi Dench says: “She thinks she’s lonely. She doesn’t know what loneliness is, what it is like to plan a whole weekend around a trip to the laundrette.” Replace laundrette with Internet café and you’ve got a statement that applies pretty well to me, too. Indeed, to be perfectly honest, one reason I’ve started going to Xhosa-language church services lately is that I know they’ll be longer and take up more of my Sunday. There’s no escaping the fact that when you pick up and move across the world, to a city where virtually no one speaks English as a first language (or at all), and find yourself navigating cultural obstacles every single day, loneliness and solitude will become a dominant shaping force in your life.

There’s lots that can be good about this. I happened to read, quite by chance, Thomas Merton’s Steven Storey Mountain on the plane ride here and his paean to the virtues of the contemplative life was influential as I began to confront my new reality here. Working in another culture and in another language, among people who are suffering so much, requires a different sort of energy than I’ve used before and I frequently find myself exhausted by mid-afternoon. In these instances, it’s nice to be able to return to a quiet evening with a good book (or the Good Book, as the case may be).

But I shouldn’t kid myself. By my nature, I am the social and extroverted type; I thrive off of others and I enjoy meeting new people and being involved in a wide range of activities. Each day of my previous life in Nome, Alaska was planned down to the minute because I was balancing so many commitments. I’ve re-located frequently in the past several years and I’ve always been able to make myself feel comfortable and at home fairly easily because I can strike up conversation and get involved quickly. But I realize now that was all dependent on our common language and cultural background. Remove that and it becomes much harder to start meeting people, making friends, and becoming part of the community.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with solitude or being alone (though I now realize that when Jesus sent disciples two-by-two it was as much for their sake as it was for the effectiveness of the evangelism). It’s just that it is not the dominant framework of our society and it is certainly not the way I’ve been used to leading my life up to this point. But it is something that all missionaries have to come to grips with and coming to grips with it requires a re-thinking of how we lead our lives.

Here’s some of the ways I’ve learned to cope:

  • Re-think the parameters of my job – My work day in Itipini may be relatively short but I now realize my job as a missionary can include more than what I do there. So when I am mentally tallying how I’ve spent my time each day, I include my Xhosa lessons as work and I also include the time I spend writing posts like these. That makes me feel a bit more busy and a bit less lonesome.
  • Set new goals for myself – With all this time on my hands, it’s a good time to re-think what I do with my life. What I’ve realized is that I have precious few hobbies, aside from my guitar, my juggling clubs, and, you guessed it, books. (Other hobbies I used to have, like ice hockey, swimming, racquetball, or snowshoeing are stymied by the climate or available resources.) So, for instance, I’ve taken the opportunity to read some parts of the Bible that I never have before, like all those Old Testament history books I always skip over and the parts I don’t want to agree with, like Revelation and Leviticus.
  • Change my expectations for evenings and weekends – I used to judge my weekends by how much I could cram into them. I’ve come to realize, if not fully appreciate, that spending an hour of my Saturday at the Internet café catching up on the news of the world and then spending a few hours in the hammock before spending a few hours in the kitchen is actually not all that bad. Sure, it means you can go the whole day without saying more than 10 words to anyone but that can be all right, particularly since I can go a whole day at Itipini without understanding 10 words anybody says to me.

All of this helps a little bit and helps keep me busy but it’s a dramatic lifestyle change for me and it never truly addresses the root of my problems, namely that I’m here and you’re there. Coming to grips with that reality is likely the enduring struggle of any missionary. Paul writes some place (I forgot where), “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” In a similar sense, this current affliction (loneliness) will pay remarkable dividends in the future (I hope) in the memories and perspective and lessons I’m gaining here. But I wouldn’t mind it if the current price were a little less and the benefits a little more readily apparent right now.

And just think: I get to be a missionary in the electronic age when friends and family are just an e-mail or phone call away. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for missionaries in the pre-electronic age. Maybe that’s why they all went with their spouses.


Heidi said...

Great post, Jesse. I've so often been lonely and bored abroad -- a few months in college studying in Scotland and a week at a conference in Barcelona comes to mind. It's a powerful experience, made me rethink my strengths and weaknesses. (Of course, parish ministry is doing the same, wow.) A hug and some fellowship to you, long distance. Keep writing, keep reading, keep on keeping on.

Anonymous said...

I've come to understand it's the hardest part of any long term mission assignment - loneliness. You are wise to confront it head-on and find ways to cope. Thanks for sharing this so articulately - it will help in advising others as they prepare for mission work.
Jane G.