“What am I doing here?”: A question often framed in the most existential terms, as asking about the origin and purpose of one’s life.
In my case, I posed it to myself when I laid down to sleep on a cane bench in rural Mindanao, Philippines. Why is the Mission Intern in Palestine eating fish breakfasts and touring barangays? Why does coconut wine taste like vinegar? Do the backward curving horns on the karibaw make it easier to ride? Is there Mexican food on this island?
“What am I doing here?!” I asked my colleague the following weekend. He lit a cigarette as we climbed on the back of a motorcycle and rode to a remote series of waterfalls, sharing private thoughts with one another. I could not have imagined that, in 2010, anymore than drinking tea beside a guard tower – every work day for six months.
Almost two years ago I took a spiritual gifts assessment. I wanted to answer the question “what am I doing here?” A minister-friend concluded that I was not going into ordained ministry, that my gifts were too creative, not pastoral or administrative. I knew that but there was no thunderclap of clarity. There is no how-to-heuristic for creative people who want to do ministry. Instead, I did the Christian-Pacifist equivalent of joining the marines: short-term mission work.
I took another step forward during the second week of workshops. The course was titled “Arts Approaches to Community Conflict”. Our facilitators were an art professor from Japan, Kyoko, and an animated Kenyan named Babu—a good story-teller. My classmates hailed from East Timor to Afghanistan, all points in Asia between, plus a Swissman, a Canadian, and three George Mason University students (other ‘Americans’—spooky).
The very first day we were sent back to kindergarten. We made three-dimensional maps of pretend communities which our facilitators decided to wreck so we could address catastrophes in our community settings — made of paper, clay, and bits of stuff we found outside. The antics did not stop for the entire week: singing, dancing, role-playing. Speaking of playing, we seemed to be doing a lot of playing around. The faux-professional element in me became restless—I needed some scholarship to send to the New York office so they would pat themselves on the back for funding my training. Luckily, I was too tired from the previous week to fake seriousness. It was time to have fun rather than take pages of notes that I would never look at ever again. I threw all of my heart and energy into each ‘game’
It was through play that we became comfortable enough to really share our thoughts. Each activity built upon the foundations of the one before it and each had a purpose without needing all the hollow signs of being ‘serious’. Being ‘serious’ is an anemic excuse to be emotionally detached from the work of community building. If I had not been at play with my classmates, I could not have shared with them my feelings about spending Palm Sunday with my boss in Jerusalem and the significance, both, of his being allowed into the city for just a few weeks and of my being exiled from the country for much longer. I was ready to share because we had been like children together while respecting each other as adults
Bearing all that in mind, I still needed to make an artistic class presentation. My trumpet was useless, safely stowed with a colleague in Hong Kong. I had arrived in Davao with only some clothes and my propensity to make every dilemma into a story. That self-fulfilling prophesy is manifest in these very words but I digress. Determined not to simply stand-up and start telling stories I decided I needed a musical element to make my presentation, yonniΘ, “legit”. Fred taught me how to make ‘lemme sticks’ when I worked for him at Camp Kinawind and I decided that make-shift percussion would be my salvation. I used a lunch-break to wander into the jungle looking for suitable materials. Things rot faster there. I briefly considered a coconut and a shard of broken tile. I had almost given-up when, as if by destiny (epic?), I found a flawless stick. Next to it was a long, unfamiliar roll of organic matter. Palm leaves, apparently, curl like scrolls when they dry out. It reminded me of something I would find in Michigan: birch bark.
My existential crisis dawned once I had my materials. What was I doing, really? That night I sat down with a pad of paper and began to sketch a story about building a fire with birch bark. The setting was an over-night excursion with teenage kids. The premise was that it had rained and the boys had to make breakfast for the girls after losing a s’more eating contest. I promised myself that I would have everything plotted before I went to bed that night; this was going to be my turning-point, I decided. It was time to get ‘serious’. Concurrent with becoming ‘serious’, I developed unbreakable writer’s block. The cycle never fails: apprehension, seriousness, inertia, despair, vice –
–The vice for the night was beer. It was an excellent choice of vice because I enjoyed it in the best of company, by the hotel pool, and in moderation. “With my propensity to turn every dilemma into a story, I can partially redeem this…”
The next stage in the cycle of hopelessness is supposed to be shame as a precursor to apathy and quitting. Instead, I chose to be weird. The next morning I took my palm-leaf scroll and my mysteriously-perfect walking-stick out to the gardens and began pacing around, telling the story in my head and using the props for sound effects. I even shook a candy tin filled with broken pencils to simulate a box of matches. In less than an hour of pacing and creeping people out I was satisfied with my story and decided that life was too short to miss breakfast. I volunteered to make my presentation first.
“Everything was there,” said Babu. The whole class seemed satisfied. It puzzled me for a few minutes because I knew I had not hammered on that presentation more than three hours total. Then I remembered my spiritual gifts assessment and understood: I might not be The Superlative Artist of All of Society but, yonniΘ, I am an artist. I may be under-practiced and screw-up; I may strive for other goals most days; yet, I still have these gifts. I know that too often I have believed I have to be excellent to have a purpose when my willingness is what matters most.
One of the American students made an interesting comment about English professors. He said they tended to think and write from inside their heads and not from “out there” in reality. I stifled my misgivings: I’ve known some better English professors than his. Instead I said, “I know what you mean – I never wanted to be that guy.” So, to answer the question “what am I doing in an Amman hotel running a high fever?” I can reply with confidence that I am “writing from out there”.
Θ: “Yonni” is an Arabic equivocator. It means “kinda-sorta” but functions, shwaya, differently grammatically.