I’ve been back for about a week now. Well, at the moment I’m in Florida, but that’s pretty irrelevant.
At first it was incredibly easy. I rejoiced over things like clean water, WASHING MACHINES, showers that came from the ceiling, air conditioning, DIET DR. PEPPER, one language, rest, and consistent power/internet. Obviously, I was glad to be back. And I still am. Life makes sense here- or at least I know what I’m doing a tiny little better.
But contentment never lasts for long. After a few days of rest and reconnecting with people I’d missed, I was ready to go to Togo (hah). The ease of living here is great, but the very challenges of life in Africa grew in appeal as I remembered the problems of life in America. And this was a difficult thing to share. Really all the stories of the time I’d spent in Africa were generally frustratingly hard to tell. The things I had learned so very painfully seemed to pale in comparison to what people expected to hear, or to not translate to fit their expectations at all. As the stories got harder to tell, they seemed less important, much as working for a literature major seemed pretty irrelevant in Togo. So I stopped telling them.
This was a bad idea.
You see, I returned to the same sin struggles that I left behind me. Which isn’t surprising, but, while I knew I had changed in an African context, it was hard to apply these changes in an American context. Keeping a missional mindset is easier when you’re actually on mission. This is a shocking revelation I know, but is harder to keep in mind when you’re actually trying to live it. And I guess it’s not surprising that having returned from the most purpose filled month of my life, I would find it hard to return to a summer where I don’t even have a job. And the more quickly I forgot, the more frustrated I became. I didn’t know why I wasn’t content here, because I wasn’t remembering the profound changes I experienced in Africa.
The only things keeping me from completely and totally assimilating- or returning unchanged to America and my life here- are the stories. All I have are memories of what happened that exist as altars of God’s faithfulness and testaments to His goodness. These are so much more important than any souvenir (THOUGH THE DJEMBE COMES PRETTY CLOSE), picture, or even relationship. Yes, that’s right. The stories of the mission trip are more important than the relationships formed. I cannot talk to 98% of the people I met and loved in Togo without a multi-thousand dollar trip. And as wonderful as my team certainly was/is, many of those relationships are already beginning to fade. So the relationships I formed and the love that I felt for the people there will live on only in the stories I tell about each of them. Isn’t it funny that the first step God gave us to a relationship with Him is a book of stories.
The only thing that will allow us to change is repeated internalization of our own- or others’- stories. Stories change us more profoundly than anything else. That is, if we let them. I fully believe that stories change us even more than experiences do. When we go through something traumatic, I don’t think it’s the event itself that impacts us most. It is the way we live with what happened- the way we make it part of our story. And the way we move on has everything to do with the way we tell the story to ourselves.
This is the power of stories, and the reason they will forever be important. Because there would be no difference between who we were and who we have become were it not for the stories that fall in between the two.
But our memories are short. So I will continue building altars to the one who gives us freedom to write and live out the most beautiful stories of failure and redemption. Preach to yourself from your own life and from the lives you see, hear, read. Continue to remind yourself of the good and the bad that has made you who you are. Keep making stories.
P.S. I have more to say on this- much more. I’m reading The Arabian Nights right now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that monster of a book, it’s the importance of stories. And stories are so integral a part of the Togolese culture that they don’t even recognize it, if that makes sense. They don’t see the purpose of a literature degree, but they share stories every chance they get- in evangelism, forming relationships, or just to fill time.