Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Latter Days

I'm back. It's been a while, I know...but, I'm back.

My parents and sister came for a visit a couple of weeks ago. It was great. We took a trip to the south see game and then moved up to Salima to visit my projects. I think they got a great cross-section of life here and it was a wonderful way to introduce them to the development world.

My internship is nearing its close. I've only got about 5 1/2 weeks left which feels like a really short amount of time. My project isn't going so well and I actually don't expect it to finish very well either. Maybe miracles still happen though. The youth I'm with aren't very motivated and the leadership of the church has gotten in the way of things more than they know. It's an interesting balance to strike, authority vs. domination. I believe in authority but when it stifles actual growth then it needs to be changed up a little. Basically, I'm not very hopeful about the project but I'm thankful to God for my time here. It's been a real blessing.

Gerald Phiri, the new youth coordinator is here! He's a really intelligent, thoughtful and pro active guy and I'm happy that he'll be my replacement. I'm now kind of like a temp who has overstayed his welcome. My presence is more of a novelty. Karissa Hernden is the office's new intern from America. She'll be working in 'permaculture' which sounds a bit like a special hair treatment shampoo but is actually a way of encouraging small farming to supply the basic nutritional needs that the populace can't get from maize. The new villages that World Relief is targeting has actually already started such projects, an encouraging sign, so Karissa and Gerald (who has also worked for a permaculture project) will be encouraging these developments. I hope things will turn out better for them than my own attempt at making life better here. Nowadays I feel like I'm just existing.

In other news, I've been reading heavy amounts of Walker Percy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The first wrote uncompromising treatises on the fall of man, the second, uncompromising treatises on what to do about it. A dangerous combination. HNGR has brought me into contact with a great deal of suffering, but it has also exposed me to the naked drear of everyday life. There's just not a lot going on here in Salima and days pass with a sluggish uneventfulness I have never before experienced, or rather, have had the money to avoid for most of my life. Percy highlights the human desire to escape the humming dreariness of present time through science and art.

"Both art and science are ways of knowing and as such are the greatest pleasures of which man is capable (Aristotle, Aquinas). So great, in fact, that the ordinary pursuits of life are spoiled by contrast and so the artist must go to heroic lengths to render life intolerable outside his art. What Einstein said of science might be said of art: I went into science to escape the intolerable dreariness of everyday life."

If science and art are the ways in which we abstract ourselves and 'orbit' the earth, then what are the methods in which we numb the inevitable reentry? What goes up must come down and anyone who has ever felt the odd inexplicable depression of everyday existence in America knows this. Everyone's method is different. We escape the present hour through art, science, technology, work, sex, romance, drugs, travel, philosophy, theology, political action, political apathy, money, food and drink, music, film, television, the internet, exercise, playing sports, watching sports etc. (and the interesting thing about science is that the scientist has the option of staying orbital for longer periods of time since our society understands the world scientifically rather than artistically/mythically. Still, at some point the scientist, even the concrete, 'applied' social scientist must come home to his wife or mother who doesn't give a care about, 'cultural norms' or 'social stuctures' but just wants him to fix the @&#% sink). How many times do I turn on my iPod or open a book or watch a film to escape the present? Far too much. HNGR has confronted me with what it really is to live 'in the fullness of time'. Malawians do it, or at least have a better concept of it. They seem to content themselves with things that drive me up the wall; like having the same conversation 100 times a day. "Hi, how are you? Where are you going? How do you compare Malawi with America?" Same string of questions every time. It's so maddeningly ordinary. But what is it about this present life that drives me to feel that I must exit it? Why do I feel so good reading and writing papers about, say the semiotic nature of man's existence and so bad when I have to clean my room, do laundry or slog through more broken Chichewa with my host-family?

Percy nails me to the wall when he says: "The problem...How do you go about living in the world when you are not working at your art, yet still find yourself having to get through a Wednesday afternoon?" It's such a relevant question for HNGR. Living with the poor involves spending a lot of uneventful time. This is HNGR's greatest torture and, I think, it's greatest formative experience. One is left so alone with oneself, and as a result I found myself subject to all kinds of odd behavior, e.g. I developed the special ability to consume an entire season of LOST in roughly half a week, just keeping it constantly playing in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen as I 'worked' on assignments. I also did it by doing my assignments. I have had all of my readings completed since September. There are more and less productive kinds of 'reentry', more or less socially acceptable methods, but they all accomplish the same end: removing oneself from the clear and present reality of one's own trudging existence.

The poor, by contrast, have fewer options for achieving an abstract orbit and thus find little trouble in reentering the world (though TV is quickly gaining popularity here, people don't lose themselves in it so much even though it is constantly turned on. It is more like a background for ordinary existence and the programs on it are not constructed fantasy worlds, but rather raw footage of just talk shows. Even when watching films, they just fast-forward to the action scenes). But orbit is not just distraction, it's abstraction, something we rational westerners are never safe from no matter how concrete or practical we may be. Language learning, anthropology, sociology etc. even in the interest of practical application increase our orbits of rational exaltation and thus, increase the pain of reentry into the simplicity of humming present time which has no use for such intellectual god-men. The poor miss out on the fruits of a good life, (entertainment, education), and for the first time I really think they may be the better for it. I haven't met a single depressed Malawian. There is no suicide here. Why? Certainly life is more difficult and, thus one would think that people would have more incentive to exit it. What if the difference is that they know who they are so fully that they don't even have to ask the question? Perhaps this is why there has been such an explosion of Christianity here in Africa. Perhaps a person who doesn't feel the need to ask existential questions like "Who am I? What am I doing here? What is life? What does it mean to exist?" may be more receptive to the actual answer. I don't think you have to be poor to be able to live like this, but I think I know what Jesus meant when he mentioned how difficult it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Percy acknowledges one of the only writers that he believes to have accomplished full life before God: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer's treatise on existence was in Newsletter 5 and it had a very profound effect on me. Being a disciple in our day and age involves the individual re-structuring his reality to make him nothing more than a creature before God, a reality that overrides even one's intellectual capabilities. Basically, we do not look for evidence Christ in the world, for that would be to start with the observable scientific/semiotic world as a more basic reality, but we are too look through Christ at the world. It's so painful to live like this, constantly under that self-destructing reality, but I feel that I must if I am to be a true Christian. It's not an easy call. I don't think it's a coincidence that Bonhoeffer lived this out and didn't get past 39 before he was killed by the powers and principalities of the world. I'm frightened by the prospect of being a disciple, but I know that it is the only meaningful road.

*Theological post script which can be skipped without getting behind on any news of real value:

My thoughts have lately been on the meaning of discipleship and how hard it is. I feel like God has been showing me the seriousness of his call to discipleship. David Cotten's recent death has made me think more and more about suffering and death and how I always somehow count myself as exempt from those inevitable realities. That kid was a soldier to the end and I hope I can be like him on the day that my trials come. The problem is that I'm pretty bad at overcoming my trials here which inevitably come in small ways: not feeling irritated when someone calls to me from across the street to give them money, keeping my head when I'm engaged in yet another conversation that I don't understand, staying present when I miss home so very much. I doubt the strength of my faith at this juncture, to endure the things that the disciples endured and to keep my eyes completely on Jesus as Bonhoeffer did. In truth I feel rather feckless, always floating off into my own world and forgetting God. Hopelessness might be a good way of describing my feelings right now. I never expected to do anything of real value here, just that I might be a bit more capable of facing life. Now I feel less capable and unsure of where my heart is. Do I love Jesus? Or do I love some vague idea of 'Jesusness' having to do with cathedrals and candles and warm feelings? Do I love him enough to follow his commands and take comfort only in his coming? To be honest I feel like Lot's wife, constantly looking back to 'that city' which can be anything, whatever floats my existential boat at the moment: home, nostalgia, movies, music, even religious enthusiasm whatever causes me to float away from the present moment. I can't stay here, I can't stay in the present, I'm always looking away to the future, the past, or whatever unattainable horizon feels like it's worth longing for. Percy says that he's seen men live and die in this longing. I don't want to be like that (or more, I wouldn't mind being like that since it numbs the pain of the present moment, but I know that this is not what Jesus calls me to be). I just need Jesus more than ever to lead me along like a little kid because even in the midst of prayer and Bible reading, I feel so terribly prodigal. Percy continues to describe me better than I can myself:

Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Miss Prouty? For a drink? For both? For a party? For youth? For the good times? For dear good drinking and fighting comrades? For football game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes again the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and the winter sun striking down into a brickyard and on clapboard walls rounded off at the edges by blistered paint...Desire has a smell. Of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle.

-from Love in the Ruins

Does God's mercy extend to the ghostly Western man, of dual mind and yearning heart whose home is everywhere and nowhere? Who dwells not in the embodied world (as Christ did!), but in the odd mist of consciousness who constantly ventures out on temporary escapades to find solace in food, alcohol, methamphetamines, airports, nostalgia for the past, hope for the future, Picasso cubism, therapy, Yoga, behavioral science, reality shows, indie music, classical music...etc. etc. Does Jesus enter into that strange liminal space in order to save us too? Is anything that I feel genuine, or just a sedative for the true horror, that I am a negative space, a self-sucking nought whose longings are only a-chasing after the wind, never to be fulfilled? Is this the barrier to true discipleship that I need to break down? Can a disciple live in longing? I've been reading a lot of theology that basically says 'no, Jesus came so that you'd get off your can and do something in the world instead of all this self-fulfillment garbage.' Lord knows I need that, but I don't think I can shake the longing so easily. Neither did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, apparently even in the physical immediacy of his cell in Tegel.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I?
This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

4 comments:

acacia said...

hi this is great writing and i love your quotes... particularly that last Bonhoeffer one. you're obviously feeling pretty disconnected from the community you live in... which is pretty normal for someone about to leave. someone told me the landscape fades as departure grows closer. but i'm not sure i buy that reentry bullshit... the truth is real relationships with people are the same wherever you are in the world. the secret is to remember this and not to generalise. its such a trap.. 'I haven't met a single depressed Malawian. There is no suicide here.' is definitely not the case. there are rich malawians, just as there are poor americans. beware of the dangerous 'they', 'they know who they are so fully that they don't even have to ask the question?'. who is they? i've thought about this a bit and posted on my blog... we are all people and we all struggle with the challenges of life. i'm serious this one fact may make all the difference to your 'reentry'. its fantastic that you are handing over to someone from here and i am sure Malawi has taught you lessons that will change your life.

ashley elizabeth said...

alex,
i don't even know what to say other than thanks for writing what you are thinking so eloquently, and so deeply honest.

i can't wait for you to come back, and i pray your last few weeks will be just as revealing as your experience has been up til now.

love,
ashley

Sarah McCord said...

Alex. Wow. I have now read your post 5 times, and I'm barely digesting it all. Its beautifully honest and painfully challenging. Thank you for sharing this. I have a million thoughts and ideas which will have to be discussed in person (!), but an idea that keeps resounding in my head:
Is the reentry from art/science/whatever into the mundane so difficult for us because we have effectively divorced art from the dreariness of life. Instead of using art as an escape, should we not be seeing life as a means to experience art? In a sense it is a reorienting of the lenses. The first lens is Christ, the second life, the third art.

This idea is in its infancy, but I thought I would share.

Sally said...

i love you and i love what is inside of you. i can't wait to see w/my eyes and hear w/my ears. You are grand!