OR: The Awkwardness of Building Human Connection Across Cultures And Why It’s Worth It
Back when I was a kid, dad would come home from work in his Sand Storm tactical boots.
He'd unpack his oxygen mask and all this aviator equipment from a double-strapped canvas duffle. It all smelled like jet fuel and worn Cessna tires. That smell still makes me feel like home. Dad would take this bag and put one or two of us kids in there and spin us in circles and we'd peek through the lining to watch our Mahogany China cabinet and Turkish rugs blur by like watercolors.
Our blurry Turkish rugs make up some of my most golden memories from being a kid. And it's when I first realized I like to do dangerous things in safe places.
Gated communities are a funny idea if you ask me.
You pay some extra money to make it hard for people with less money to get in. It's probably really nice, I've never lived in one.
I always wondered what would happen if someone inside the gates decided to be a robber. One time I invented a short story about it. A gated community where everyone inside was corrupt except for one empty house. One by one people would move in and get cleaned out by this neighborhood that looked perfect from the outside. The moral of the story was about how you take extra risks when you feel safe. The protagonist was this detective who was really cunning and witty like my friend Kathryn and she'd move in and piece everything together and put the whole neighborhood behind bars. I never wrote that story, I got nervous thinking about it too much to tell you the truth.
Besides, I barely knew enough of gated communities to write about one. I'd grown up seeing them from the outside. I grew up seeing a lot of things from the outside since we moved a lot. Schools, youth groups, friends, clubs. I fought it too. I remember fighting to get inside things a lot. I still see that tendency in me. To want to be safe.
Being inside doesn't help a lot here in Africa though, so I've stopped fighting as much. A lot of people here understand more about being outside. People's lives are messy, and they don't fit as well behind picket fences.
WE DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FEEL COMFORTABLE
When we first arrived in Africa, I noticed that I lived in a lot of extremes. I was always famished or stuffed. Always too hot, or too cold, or too tired.
My body was trying to get a handle on living in such a different place. I never felt balanced. It just felt like I needed to be fixed. It was exhausting.
I found myself pushing past people a lot of the time to get back to my version of what felt normal.
It's strange–I'm learning a new normal now. I've learned to feel okay about being uncomfortable sometimes. I didn't realize how much I needed to learn that till I got here.
My friend Abigail says a lot of convicting things to me about selfishness. I think you have to be a very special person to tell other people about selfishness. Once she said that our main goal as humans is always comfort. We have to fight what's natural to be okay with uncomfortable things. And we have to believe that other people are more important than our comfort.
WHEN WE'RE A HUNDRED PERCENT COMMITTED TO LOVING PEOPLE WE'LL GET UNCOMFORTABLE A HUNDRED PERCENT OF THE TIME
I'm really good at making five-minute friends. Like the kind you make at parties and gas stations. Five-minute friends don't ask you to keep up with them and their feelings don't get hurt. They don't get under your skin. They don't know you aren't perfect.
Here's what C.S. Lewis says,
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
People live slower here in Africa. And they have a very communal way of living. You share everything. The resources you have and the ones you can't spare. Time. Your bare humanity.
I used to think I was good at loving people. Now I know I was just good at gas-station friends.
One time I was walking through a market here and this guy stopped me and Abe and said to call him 'Mr. Less Expensive'. He said, "I give you good price" and he offered us these huge woven throws for 40,000 Franc, which is about 80 bucks. I told Mr. Less Expensive I'd give him 5 bucks. "That is not good price for me!" He was very snobby about it to tell you the truth. But Mr. Less Expensive stopped his sales pitch long enough to arm wrestle with a few of us, and then he invited me to join his family under their palm-woven roof to eat rice.
He invited other people too. I don't know how he had enough food for everyone, he must have been starving. Maybe that's why he's so bad at arm wrestling. But I sat there watching everyone eat and I thought about gas-station friends.
They don't make gas-station friends in Africa. One minute you're strangers and the next you're treated like family. How do they do that? I think people are better at feeling uncomfortable here. It's so awkward.
WHEN WE'RE OPEN TO LOVING PEOPLE THE UNCOMFORTABLE WAY, WE CAN EXPERIENCE GOD'S RAW, SHAKEN-TOGETHER BLESSING
My friend Flora is about 4 1/2 feet tall. She's got long beautiful weave that's about another foot and she's really good at saying honest things, like when my French accent is bad. Once a week we pour over French books and drink iced lemonade. She doesn't take coffee.
I always pretend I'm there to learn French, but then I just ask her nosy questions. I ask her why men and women are more segregated here. I ask if wearing pants is offensive to the culture, and what it's like to grow up in Africa and if she has blurry-Turkish-rug sort of memories.
Africa constantly proves to me that building a community isn't about having lots in common with people. I think that's a really uncomfortable truth for most of us to face.
Flora grew up in a small Ivorian village, and I grew up on Air Force compounds. Right now we barely have a language in common. But we have Christ. One of the most unearthing blessings I get to see here is looking straight into people's eyes and communicating huge concepts with barely any words. I get to connect with other humans based on the knowledge that God sees someone like me and and someone like Flora the same. We're both broken people who needed fixing, and God loved us both and even liked us enough to want to give us a way to fix our broken lives and have Hope.
I think saying all that out loud is good because it makes us realize the facts. It makes us more grateful–hopefully enough to care more about connecting with people and less about being comfortable.
At least it should make us less afraid.