June 23, 2008

The Noble Pursuit

I don’t think I’ve ever confessed a deep-seated fear I’ve held onto in my time here. You may laugh when you read this but on some level, some significant part of me has always been worried that I’ll be forgotten in this distant corner of the world by the friends and supporters who sent me here. I am busy creating my own new and supportive environment here but I don’t want to lose touch with similar environments I’ve left behind. One reason I am so diligent with this blog and my monthly e-mails is that I want to keep people apprised of what is happening here in hopes that they do the same for me. I have frequently written that the best way to support me is to write me a “gossipy” e-mail and that’s so because it makes me feel connected with all of you whom I’ve left behind.

So far, so good. I don’t think I’m in immediate danger of being forgotten and I frequently feel overwhelmed by the number of e-mails and letters I am sent. (Thanks, by the way, to the many of you who write me real mail!) But all these communications raise another difficulty and it is that difficulty I want to explore here.

Sometimes when I read my correspondence, I am struck by the number of people who tell me (or strongly imply) what “great work” I am doing and how important it is and how great I am for choosing to be here. From conversations with other missionaries, I’ve learned I am not alone in receiving these sorts of messages. It seems as if just by taking on the title missionary, our correspondents think we are engaged in some noble pursuit. Please know first that I deeply appreciate these messages and the words of encouragement do matter tremendously. So don’t stop sending them just because of what I’m going to say next.

The trouble is that when I read these e-mails - from accomplished, talented people, who are engaged in important service work in their own lives, and whom I respect a great deal - I am struck by an incredible feeling that they’ve got the wrong guy. I want to check to make sure the e-mail is actually addressed to me. After all, my life here often seems decidedly ordinary. I wake up, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, get in the car, drive to work, and try to do something meaningful but some days I wish I was somewhere else besides Itipini. After work, I do some errands, drive back to my rondavel, eat dinner, read a book or write some e-mails, brush my teeth, and go to bed. Occasionally, this routine is spiced up by dinner out or a Bible study but it strikes me as a fairly ordinary sort of life, one not much different to the life I’ve lived anywhere else. It is unsettling to have this life described in such grand terms.

What’s more, as I have written time and again, I often feel very ineffectual and helpless here, that my contribution is so minimal as to be meaningless, and that I am having no discernible impact on anything of importance. Contrast this with the effective and transforming work I see being done by some of my correspondents and I wonder if it shouldn’t be me writing the “noble pursuit” e-mails.

If there is anything remotely noble about the missionary, it is his decision to live a normal, routine existence in situations that are completely different to those with which he is familiar. The significance of this shouldn’t be underestimated and it can be jarring at first and aggravating. But after a while the new context becomes familiar and some frustrations begin to fade away. That sense of excitement and adventure that accompanied the setting out on the mission gradually fades, along with any sense of nobility once associated with the pursuit. I consider myself and my work here perfectly “normal” and just like everyone else’s, with the exception that I am performing it in a different context than you are yours. This is where the importance of the idea of the Incarnation, which I wrote about in my recent monthly e-mail, comes to the fore. That idea helps soothe some of the pain and aggravation caused by the feelings of insignificance that naturally attend this line of work.

And, really, if everyone keeps telling me how great this all is, it’s all going to go to my head. We all know I don’t need any more of that!


Anonymous said...

Hm. I don't know if I put missionary work in the "noble pursuit" category, though in many circles it would certainly be considered that. I toot your horn, Jesse, because you are able to tell the story of another place, another reality, in a way that moves people to think and to act. You can only tell that story because you are hands-on in the middle of it, rather than a casual outside observer. The work you do will have an enormous positive effect on Itipini; the work you write will have an enormous positive effect beyond Itipini. God bless, Jesse!
Mary Brennan