One short and obvious, one sort of odd and maybe a little amusing, and one more serious and reflective...and longer...
1.) I stink at writing blogs…or at least at writing blogs regularly. But, you already know that, so I won’t dwell on it…
2.) Sometimes I sleep on the floor…don’t worry, not directly on the cold, hard concrete. I don’t know if my bony frame could make it through a night like that. There’s a woven mat on the floor that’s about as long as I am, and I take a fairly thick blanket and do a sort of tri-fold thing with it (basically making a flattened Z). The folded blanket goes on top of the mat, a camping pillow goes at one end, and I go inside the blanket, so that two layers are beneath me and I can use the third as a cover. Why do I do this? Because I also stink at waking up early, especially when I sleep in my bed. After two years of use, I fit into the mattress like a baseball fits into a catcher’s mitt. It’s a bit too cozy when I need to get out of bed early. Sleeping on the floor is a bit less comfortable, but I can still go to sleep fairly easily, and, in the morning, I still don’t want to get up. But, at least I wake up when my alarm goes off. When I’m sleeping in bed and I need to get up for something, I set at least four alarms on my phone the night before, spaced out so that they get gradually closer together the longer I sleep in. Even with those fail-safes in place, sometimes my barely-awake brain is able to silence all of the alarms so that it can go back to bed. It’s a pretty impressive feat, considering I can’t even remember doing that when I wake up again hours later… So, because I still have the sleep schedule of a lazy guy in college, sometimes I sleep on the floor. (And I secretly hope that it helps my posture a bit, too…)
3.) Moving to something a bit more serious, I’ve recently come to a greater appreciation of how eye-opening this whole experience has been for me. In this case, I mean “eye-opening” in terms of learning about myself. Obviously, the past two years have given me a wealth of interesting outward experiences, but I’m looking inward right now. Over the past week or so, I’ve been reading journal entries that I wrote during training. Believe it or not, when we first arrived in Uganda, I was amazingly good about writing in that journal, just about every night. This lasted almost the whole way through our 10 week training period. Then I got to site, and I started to write in the journal only slightly more frequently than I wrote blogs. In other words, there have been stretches where I didn’t write in it for months. Anyway, the point is that I’ve been looking back at some of the first thoughts I had after coming to Uganda, and I’m realizing that I have changed a little bit. Admittedly, I was kind of naïve, I was incredibly idealistic (sometimes to the point of writing stuff that seems excessively sappy and sentimental), and, although it was not explicitly said, it was implied that I thought I was a pretty good and special person for doing what I’m doing. I also thought that I was this calm, cool, and collected Zen master who could handle anything with grace and ease. (I may be exaggerating the truth slightly with my word choice, but you get the idea.)
I’m certainly not saying that I’ve made a 180 degree turn, here, but I definitely see differences between who I was and who I am. I certainly don’t know everything I should know for the work that I’m doing, but I’ve learned quite a bit over the past couple of years. I haven’t turned to ultra-realism, but my idealism is tempered now by the raw experience of things sometimes not living up to my hopes. I may still get sentimental on occasion (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but that has become counterbalanced by what I think is a healthy skepticism. In other words, I question things even more than I used to, which sometimes helps to find deeper truths that can emerge from previous ideas.
Perhaps most importantly, I know now that I am not, as I might have thought, a person with an extraordinary, Zen-like amount of patience and collectedness. Indeed, I have found that there is a pretty intense temper that finds its way to the surface once in a while. A few months ago, I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and a passage near the end really nailed it for me:
“Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing, and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom.”
In the next paragraph, Lewis goes on to discuss “nasty people” who try to be better and find out right away that they need lots of help. As usual, I see some parts of myself fitting into the (apparently) “nice chap” model and some parts fitting into the “nasty person” model. (I also think that other parts of myself are not encompassed by these two possibilities, but that’s not really relevant to my point right now.) The past two years have, in some ways, helped me to bring my personality and my soul out into the sunlight, so that I could see some of the scratches and bruises and dents. It’s hard, when you’re in the moment, or when you look back on a moment, and you realize that it’s not one of your best moments. It’s hard to discover that the frustrations and realities of the world are threatening to make you jaded or pessimistic or devoid of compassion, that they are tearing down your abstractions and ideals about how things should work and how things should be. It’s hard to find yourself, and to be not quite satisfied with what you have found.
In the end, though, I’m glad. It’s important to realize these things. I think it’s important to be “not quite satisfied” with what I have found in myself, because it pushes me toward a path of growth. I think it’s important to understand that I could be nudged down a path that leads to pessimism, jadedness, or despair. I occasionally see myself turning in that direction. On the whole, I love what I’m doing, but it can be really easy to forget that when the frustrations and annoyances build up. It can be really easy to become hard and closed, and maybe even a little unfriendly at times. But, witnessing those parts of myself is a step toward overcoming those parts of myself, with help. By closing myself off in an (often failed) attempt to shut out frustrations, I am also shutting out the positive influence of those around me. I am now trying to make a conscious effort to remain open, even when things start to tick me off, and I have witnessed a positive impact, both on my thoughts and on my work (while still seeing much room for improvement, of course).
Some years ago, during a trip to Nicaragua, I wrote that I have no right to despair. I would go beyond that now. I would say that, for me, despair is not even a reasonable option. I’m going to support this with passages taken from another British author, J.R.R. Tolkien (yep, I’m re-reading the Lord of the Rings right now): First, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” Second, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
I am so fortunate to have this opportunity, and to continue the experience into another year. I have the opportunity to do something that I want to do, something that I love. Doing it means that I also miss some things that I love, but they will be brought back again soon enough. Though the joy and love does often mingle with disappointment and difficulty, perhaps this process makes the positive that much stronger. Though I have come to see many of my faults and blemishes more clearly, perhaps, in the end, that knowledge is making me a better, and happier, person.