Friday, March 7, 2008

the glory of the mustard seed

entanglements of human relationships, solace of nature: comforts of human relationships, isolation of nature.

Entanglements of human relationships. On Friday I returned to the office after an incredibly touching men’s group in Massabolahun. It should be noted that the pressure to control one’s emotions is also indoctrinated into the fabric of the culture here and the subtle reminders that ‘real men don’t cry’ can sometimes result in resistance to the group process. Given these groups have been created with the sole purpose of helping trauma and torture survivors process their memories and express their emotions, most men who get involved in therapy end up feeling a little bit conflicted about what to do. They seem to quickly forget all the emotional and environmental problems they reported upon first contact with our organization. In direct contrast to this frequently observed resistance, this very unique group of men in Massabolahun have embraced the idea of affect expression wholeheartedly and are not only processing difficult emotions openly, but trusting each other with some very sensitive and very personal information. The later of the two is the added benefit of having group psychotherapy instead of individual treatment. The building of human relationship occurs automatically and when something personal is shared, a sense of togetherness is experienced without any volitional goals set to accomplish it – it’s just happens naturally. The push pull of engagement and mistrust is ever present for psychotherapy groups no doubt, but members who are willing to process these feelings tend to make great gains with dealing with the entanglements of human relationships.

Upon arriving back at the office after this very touching group session I entered the compound in a bit of a rush thinking about all the paperwork and evaluations that needed to get done. On my left I could hear our administrator talking loudly in one of the palava huts to a group of security guards, counselors and our well dressed gardener (I say well dressed because he was once again wearing his Iowa Hawkeye’s Outback bowl t-shirt). I figured the administrator had organized a staff meeting. Given its hot and my window was open I heard the following:

What Jesus did and what he said is the path for the glory of god. You understand? All that glory that comes is brought by God. Size and wonders will follow you so everything is done in Jesus’ name. So this power is yours. Get it? As human beings you are able to rise again. But it’s not happening now you might say and I would say it’s because you don’t now have that faith. You understand? A mustard seed is small. You understand. Because the mustard seed is smaller than a benie seed you might think it’s less powerful but that seed is able to produce more and that is the power behind it. You understand.
[there is a brief pause]. Hey AB do you even know how to program that phone. Bring it. I have the knowledge for these things. There are many things it can do, you know. I know about these things and I’ll show you because I know things you don’t know. I understand because The Glory of God is behind me. Behind ME you hear. The Glory of God is all powerful. Do you understand?

I don’t know about you but I don’t understand. And by ‘not understanding’ I mean I don’t comprehend a single spoken word of that entire speech. How is that possible? How can it be that this typically intelligent very kind fellow sounds ever so slightly disorganized and very arrogant when he is standing in his self made pulpit? I have no problem with him having faith and sharing it with fellow believes but I am not quite sure I understand the message here especially when I notice that half of his audience does not share in his religious affiliation and AB is starting to feel bad. I’m also not sure I will ever understand this process of religious beliefs leading to unconstrained superiority. But, please dear reader do not take this the wrong way. By no means do I wish to comment on anyone’s identity as a religious person or how they live their life. I personally have a very difficult time understanding my own identity and belief system in light of the fact that I am open to the validity of beliefs held by many traditions and do not have issue with any single tradition. What I know is that my own understanding of life and death has been transformed, purified, and enriched by the ways in which I have come to understand all traditions, not just one. There is an incredible amount of diversity in contemporary practices of religion and I am touched and moved by the manner in which people do wonderful things in the service of their beliefs. I only hope I some day reach a point where I can resolve my agitation about how religion is at times exploited and can lead to the maltreatment of others as I know religious identity is complex issue. Presently I struggle with two extremes – some days I feel hardened against it and want nothing to do with it and other days I feel so willing to learn more, try more, incorporate more into my life that the possibilities seem endless and the beauty of faith comforts me like a soft blanket.

With that being said, I didn't think aobut any of this on the day when I heard this gentleman start demeaning his colleagues level of knowledge about technology and for some reason I bristled at his bogus sense of righteousness and screamed out the window – ‘hey: let’s watch the references to faith in this compound, we are a neutral organization right?’ I see his face freeze in a state of anxiousness and I flush at the crudity of my own words and wonder if I am being unfair. Nobody seems to notice the intensity of our non-verbal interaction and everybody casually gets up and starts to go about their own business: business that had plenty to do with cell phones and the latest Nigerian movie playing in the nearby movie house but little to do with the glory of the mustard seed.

Solace of nature. The relief I get from nature tends to vary in direct relation to the environment and state of mind that I am in. What I can say is that I’m not very good at “being” with nature. This tragically comes from a girl who has decided to settle her belongings in Colorado – one of the most conducive places on this planet to appreciating the solace of nature. Just last year I was blessed to connect to someone who had recently relocated to Colorado from California. This gentleman had an amazing ability to just ‘be’ in nature and at times it even appeared that if he was indoors too long he started to feel suffocated and smothered. He craved the air, the water, the earth like an addict craves their drug of choice and he made it his mission to be outside engaging with nature as much as humanly possible. He even lived out of his VW bus from time to time so he could simply roll out of bed onto a beach or into the forest or whenever his heart so desired. His style of engagement with nature was inspirational, untainted and pure. I was lucky because I learned much from him, but once again I have to admit that I’m not very good at just being, especially when it comes to nature. I am quick to get distracted, I have a tendency to rush and I have this uncanny ability of attracting mosquitoes.

For me, what I am good at when it comes to engaging with nature is playing in it. As a small girl I lived in a woodsy area where I was the only girl in a sea of boys. I very quickly learned that if I wanted to play I would have to play their way. We built forts, rode skateboards, dug tunnels and secret passageways in snowy banks and aggressively engaged in sports. Anything from basketball to badminton was included and it was always with a no holds bar attitude. So to me nature quickly became a place where you do something. Today this typically means taking a long walk with Tuesday, loading up my snowboard for a trip to the mountains or grabbing my basketball and finding a court.

Comforts of human relationships. Interestingly, but maybe not so surprisingly, some of the most comforting human relationships I have made are tied to a mutual love for play. A few months ago I wrote about my experience of playing basketball as a woman in Africa surrounded by ex-combatants and Pakistani peace keeps. Well this experience, an experience that was sometimes tense and sometimes uncomfortable, has unfolded into a very special part of my life. Nearly every evening and twice a day on the weekends I have gotten together with a group of local men ranging in age from 15 to 40 and we play. There is Massallay, my most favorite of teenage boys. He lost both his parents during the war and presently lives in town with a friend of the family so he can go to school. From time to time he is given permission to visit his maternal grandmother in the village. He loves this grandmother dearly and would prefer to live with her but there is no school in this village so he must tolerate the neglect and misfortune that infiltrates his life in the big city for the sake of his education. In spite of it all, he is polite and thoughtful and charismatic and developing into a true leader. Then there is Kobe Bryant. I don’t know Kobe’s real name as he was been gifted this name long before I met him due to the fact that every time he plays basketball he proudly wears his Kobe jersey. Any chance he gets he downloads NBA footage to his phone and after practice he can been seen practicing these street savvy moves with gusto. He is talented, a good observer of other people’s weaknesses and is quick to exploit them. He’s a bit of a ball hog but at the end of the day you have to be if you are truly going to be one of the greats and he has the potential, no doubt. Finally there is Mohammed. Also known as Coach, Mohammed is the eldest and BEST player on the court. Aside from being a true athlete he has an amazing sense of humor and contagious laugh. We truly enjoy playing together, are known by all as partners, and when ever it is time for 2-on-2 we step up and play together. We have yet to be beaten and just yesterday we both showed up at the court wearing flip flops and work clothes as neither one of us had time to go home after work to change. In reality neither one of us had really planned on playing but it is commonplace for all of us who play regularly to at least stop by the court to say hello on our way home for the evening. As Mohammed and I stood there and chatted about the pending dinner I wanted to have we were challenged by a few of the guys on the court. Being the fierce competitors that we are we couldn’t tolerate not accepting the challenge, so we accepted without hesitation. Even in flip flops we couldn’t be beaten. He has an exquisite eye for the pass and with time we have learned to read each other incredibly well.

The reason I am having this dinner is because these guys decided to accept me into their little world and treated me as an equal and last weekend they did something incredibly touching. Together, unbeknownst to me, they decided to plan a farewell/exhibition game for me. For weeks they arranged the rosters, invited important people from town and even put an announcement on the local radio station. On the day of the event they all showed up in matching jerseys and arranged benches around the court for the fans who showed up to watch and support us. It was youth vs. old school. You may be surprised to hear this but I played for old school. Every trip down the court they would look to me for the pass and set all these elaborate picks so I could get off a shot. It was fun yet serious and at the conclusion of the game there was a long series of speeches all thanking me for my passion and interest in basketball. Even the superintendent showed up and he remarked that my playing basketball with the locals was probably more helpful that my professional work here. In some ways it might be true. Tonight I hope to thank them by having them all over for dinner. So, even though I struggle in some ways to find solace in nature, my tendency to get outside and play has paid off in spades for me here in Voinjama.

Isolation of nature. Although as I just noted that I have a difficult time taking solace in nature I can strangely say that when I am feeling connected to nature it typically happens when I am in complete isolation from others. Lying in my hammock looking at a sunset, standing on dusty path in the interior of Africa, searching for soothing stones on an abandoned beach; these are the times I feel most alive in nature. When I’m alone and isolated from others I can engage with nature or maybe more correctly I can feel what it’s like to be close to nature. If you bring anyone else into the equation, even a stranger that is not directly relating to me or infiltrating my personal space, I lose it and I am overtook by an urge to move.

I love traveling alone because I can set out for the day and make decisions like, “today – I walk,” and, nobody will take issue with the fact I didn’t visit the famous museum or historical landmark. Or today I sit at the café and people watch for 4 hours. The isolation in my decision making and lack of anxiety about deciding something and wondering about how it will affect someone else is exhilarating. But even then, even when I feel freer than I have ever felt before, if there are people around I need to move. It is only in isolation from others that I feel held by nature. Nature may at times be isolating but the world is a populated place and sometimes isolation is the best prescription for our troubles.

1 comment:

david santos said...

Hello, Gwen!
I loved this blog.
Thank you.

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