As I’ve reflected with others over the past few days, answering the obvious, “How was the trip?” question more than a few times, I was discouraged at first that I didn’t have a clear answer. “It was good,” was usually all I could come up with. One person responded, “It sounds like it was a good trip, but I expected a little more excitement in your voice. I just don’t hear it when you talk.” He was right.
This was partly the sleep deprivation giving mixed signals, but there was some truth to it. I didn’t come back excited about the trip because I didn’t exactly know what I was bringing back with me. Whereas a number of the volunteers shared powerful moments of conversion, clear experiences of God in what they were doing, and serious connections with the people we served, my big reflection was, “I was happy not to die on my first trip out of the country.” Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the work, felt relatively comfortable in a foreign environment, greatly enjoyed my time spent getting to know the other volunteers, and was obviously touched by the generosity and openness of the people that welcomed us into their homes and culture (how could you not be touched?) I would even say that I would go back again. It was a good experience. And yet, I didn’t come back “excited.”
In fact, there was a part of me that was a bit disappointed in the trip. The fact of the matter is that I didn’t really invest myself as completely as others did. They came prepared with games and stickers, books to read and puppets to play with; they jumped right in and started talking with people and making friends; they tried everything, took part in every game, meal, excursion, and gift shop. I, on the other hand, followed where I was supposed to go, did what I was supposed to do, and mostly kept my head down. In the end, they had their full experience and I had my “I’m happy I didn’t die” experience. In this way, my lack of excitement could definitely be traced to a little regret here.
But as I think about it more, what I experienced was exactly what I needed to experience. As this was my first time out of the country, let alone visiting a third-world country, so much of this trip was just encountering and overcoming new experiences. Mosquito net beds. Toilet paper in the trashcan. Worrying about drinking enough water but making sure it’s clean. Being one of the only people in the area that speaks English. Eating foods I’ve never tried. Rooms with six bunkbeds. No hot water. Ten days without technology. Navigating new cultural and social norms. The list could go on and on for hours because, really, almost everything I experienced for ten days was new, making even the most routine tasks a new personal challenge to overcome.
It’s no wonder, then, that I didn’t jump right in as others did or come away with the strong connections with the Nicaraguans we met: I was too busy encountering myself in a new environment. It’s strange thing to think about but I think it’s true. Placed in a new environment, stripped of our comforts and distractions, left with only ourselves and our thoughts, we are forced to see even familiar tasks differently, but more importantly, to understand ourselves in those surroundings differently. Just as the background of a picture can drastically change our perspective of the subject, so to do we see ourselves differently in a new surrounding.
For us on mission, I think this is an essential, albeit frustrating, process that everyone has to go through their first time. We all want to go and encounter the other, to understand another culture through intense relationships with new people. And to some extent, I did that last week; it’s kind of impossible not to get a taste of this after ten days. But there’s also a part of me, the disappointed part, that realizes that I was not fully capable of encountering the other. Although I could begin to form a relationship, when so much of my energy in the encounter was spent dealing with my own struggles, my interactions with others were less about encountering another and more about encountering myself in the other. When I met someone new, I couldn’t fully see them because all I could see was my newfound minority status and inadequacy in speaking the language. This is the story, I hope, not so much of egocentric me, but of a first-time missionary in a completely new environment, a story we all must go through before we can go deeper.
So how do I feel about the trip? Well, it was a good trip, and I am happy that I survived. These words don’t seem to say much and they’re certainly not profound reflections, but I say them now without disappointment or regret. I know that I cannot fully encounter another until I have first gotten over the need to encounter myself. I did that. It’s my hope that, as I go on more of these trips and am able to spend less time processing mundane things and more time outside of myself, that the one that I will encounter is my new brother and sister, and that who I will encounter in them is our Lord who unites us as one. I’m glad to have encountered myself in a new way on this trip, but I also know that no encounter with ourselves can ever be complete without this.