Narratives

I do have a habit of time-delayed reflection. Those folks I’ve been reading lately would say it’s because I’m an introvert. By time delayed, I mean I tend to reflect upon experiences at a distance of six months to five years. Before six months I don’t have enough perspective or information; after five years experiences have been chewed to death by analysis and aren’t so interesting anymore, except in support of something else. This seems to work well enough for me, except that other (extroverted?) people tend to ask for reflections at a distance of five minutes to one week.

Last summer I moved to Sakartvelo for the summer and fall semester. I’m planning on going back, but it’s likely my own experience of that will be quite different, because I know some people, and have some regular activities more or less arranged. Anyway, I moved there last summer, and in addition to a lot of lovely , interesting things I wrote about at the time (teaching police officers, attending supras, meeting nice people, roaming the hills, etc), I also had an ill-defined question which I poked at, but could make nothing of — or nothing that I could articulate in a way that would be interesting to anyone besides myself. Even I would have admitted, if someone had asked, that I was pursuing it in quite an odd way. The question had come from the culture of the evangelical church I belonged to as a teen, especially from the reports that came back from short term missions, and most especially from The World Race. I ignored many things about these reports: the part that was interesting and perplexing might be described as the “international missions as therapy” aspect of them. I’m not sure, at present, whether it’s actually the case that people were actually more engaging when recounting this part of their mission trips, or whether I found them more interesting for other reasons. In any event, I found them so.

I was struck, for instance, by the blog of an acquaintance I knew in college: the therapeutic posts with messages like “I’m learning to overcome my depression” not only had more literary sparkle than posts like “a man was raised from the dead” — but so much more that the resurrection story was downright dull; I could hardly read it. On the surface of things, that’s a little surprising, but it is true, because the latter story wasn’t personal; she reported it because it’s surprising, but it’s obvious that it didn’t have much lasting meaning for her (or, by extension, the reader). From another blog, I was similarly struck that the writer’s realization that she is CHOSEN (her caps) was a great deal more interesting and perplexing than anything she said about any of the places she went, people she met, or activities she engaged in — it had real energy, even if it’s also a cliche, whereas the other posts lacked something in personal interest and narrative structure. Reading that post, it’s not too hard to see where it fits into a story, and what kind of story it’s part of.

Those blogs were showing, I believe, the way in which a story, even about something that’s not in itself shocking, is usually more interesting to both reader and writer than a fact, no matter how surprising, the story of which we are not privy to. K knew her fight with depression as a story lived over some fifteen years, and so when something shifted she knew how to value the importance of that. S likewise had lived long enough with her self-definitions that a change came as a revelation (directly from God, in her words). On the other hand, if you take a moderately uninformed American, and plop them into a different country and culture, of which they don’t know very much, and then remove them from it just when they’re starting to get settled and become sensitive to what’s going on — then it’s hardly surprising that they’re unable to say anything interesting about that culture and community that’s not ultimately about themselves. They simply don’t have access to the nuances of life outside their mission group — which is not necessarily wrong; it can simply be surprising to people like me. Besides, evangelical culture teaches us how to construct personal narratives (both by imitation, and in actual lessons), but doesn’t necessarily teach us how to do the same with the world outside of ourselves.

Aside: That’s interesting in light of how “extroverted” that same culture is. The hypothesis I was exploring in my previous post was that an extroverted style is mostly about the object, sometimes to the detriment of the subject, whereas I just observed that these accounts are all about the subject, with relatively little interest in the object. My best guess is that there were a lot of other accounts which concentrated much more upon the object (the work done, number of converts, etc), which I didn’t bother paying attention to, because I found them to be rather boring, except as something to argue with.

In any event, I found those kinds of accounts interesting, and decided to explore them where I was, with my own utter unconcern for external details. By details, I mean huge, obvious differences in circumstance and intent — especially the difference between participating in a highly planned, concentrated mission program with a core group of enthusiastic volunteers from one’s own cultural background, and participating in a rather lax, undemanding “program” with a great deal of freedom and very little contact with either directors or other volunteers, a rather vague target, and a great deal of personal flexibility. That’s really quite important, it turns out, because being in a close-knit group of enthusiastic, focused people is a hugely important thing. Being given topics to focus on can be a hugely influential thing, as it’s meant to be. When one is pretty much left to themselves, they have to either recognize a story for themselves, or make do without one.

I seem to do this to myself on purpose. Jung would probably say something about the Unconscious. Many Christians would say something about God’s will. I’m somewhere in the middle. I have developed a pattern of thinking about highly structured, guided activities and experiences, while rejecting them, fighting against them, and making major life decisions that distance me from them. I choose extremely open-ended jobs, education, or activities, and then wonder why I have to figure most everything out for myself. I’ve been known to whine that TLG gives a LOT less training and direction than the Peace Corps, but when I’m being honest with myself I’ll admit that they also offer a LOT more freedom, and that if I had to choose, I would pick freedom over preparation in the vast majority of cases. I’ve been known to complain that art teachers have to design their own curriculum, but when I’m being honest I’ll admit that I tend to re-design actual curriculum, because I like designing, researching, writing, and organizing information better than I like teaching, way better than I like getting young people to do things, and way, way better than trying to adapt myself to someone else who’s trying to get me to do things in a certain way.

In any event, I have learned some (personal) things this past half year, mostly from not being in a tight-knit group. For instance, I had always had the vague notion that “we” were the team, organization, or church; the people who are from the same place and speak the same language. That’s not entirely untrue, if only because it’s hard to get to know people you can’t properly talk to. It’s not entirely true, either. There are Georgians who don’t speak English, but who are easier to appreciate, and with whim I share more of a common culture than a lot of Americans I’ve met; even Americans I’ve known for some time and share a lot of life experiences with. There are people who go to church, pray, and read, and who are easier to talk with, even without many shared words, than people who speak very decent English, but who want to drink at bars.

I should, of course, have known that. After all, I’ve read a lot of books in translation, and outside of a few very specific linguistic issues (ousia, for instance, or Tao), I often come away with the impression that I understand the person, and that if they would give me some time (which they might not, since I’m a woman, in a lower class, and a foreigner) and we learned each other’s language, we would really have things to talk about, and I would have something to learn from them (and not only psychological truisms). There are other people who live in America and speak very decent English, and who belong to the same religion, but who I think it would be much more difficult to have a conversation, because we’re thinking in different directions and with much different intentions. In Tuluksak I met two traveling Alaskan Natives who were really more interesting than anyone in town, and a few in town who were more interesting than most anyone else. That’s a function of education and temperament, but also it’s the case that some people are simply more interesting than other people, and everybody from any country might notice it.

Upon consideration, I don’t know how I couldn’t have known that, for instance, certain Georgians might be more attractive and make more sense to me, not only than certain Americans, but than many other Georgians. Or that the same is almost certainly true of Africans, Chinese, or any other nationality or culture. On the whole, the difference between people can be greater than the difference between cultures. I would have known that about British people, I hope, but apparently I had somehow forgotten.

I wonder if thinking too much about one’s own team has a kind of blinding influence upon some of us, so that it becomes unexpected that, for instance, if I were doing World Race stuff I might happen upon an African bishop that I would want to spend all my time watching and listening to, so that I might become greatly tempted to neglect what my team was doing, and be really sorry to move on. If I take an honest look at my actual life, however, that’s much more likely than most of the stuff I’ve heard from church mission teams or blogs.

I’ve been impressed with this in part because of the places I’ve been (Syria and Georgia) and the way I’ve been there (at the invitation of Bishop Saba, and then the Georgian government), and the people I’ve been introduced to (the ancient monasteries of Syria and the Patriarch of Antioch; the president of Georgia, the bishops of Nikozi and Gori, a number of policemen, and a small liberal arts college; along with a lot of very nice, welcoming people in both places); in other words, in both places we were treated as invited guests, and introduced to loved and respected local leaders, often in what has been a position of authority for millennia. The people around them, responsible for looking after guests, are likewise good, thoughtful, respected people. Both Syria and Georgia also have a culture where looking after guests is important; the Georgian proverb is “guests are from God.”

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